Sometime today, when the state of Pennsylvania can get a Korean translator out to the penitentiary, Han Tak Lee will learn that he won in court last week.
Until that happens, it'll be just another day in prison for a man serving time for a crime he didn't commit.
"The law is the means by which fragile, frail, imperfect persons and institutions seek greater perfection and justice through the search for the truth. But the search for the truth is not always easy, and the path to the truth is not always clear. Sometimes we find that truth eludes us. Sometimes, with the benefit of insight gained over time, we learn that what was once regarded as truth is myth, and what was once accepted as science is superstition.
So it is in this case."
- U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson
In the summer of 1989, a fire broke out in the cabin where Han Tak Lee and his daughter, Ji Yun, were staying.
The pair had come to the woods from their home in New York City because Ji Yun was extremely depressed and withdrawn, and the family's minister had recommended attending this Christian retreat, the Hebron Camp, in Stroud, PA. Earlier in the evening, an intensive, three-hour prayer session - some would describe it as an exorcism, with two ministers restraining Ji Yun to pray over her - had left Ji Yun exhausted and emotionally drained. She didn't want to be there, and she was volatile. She had locked herself in the cabin's bathroom for several hours, and was heard saying the camp would become her "tomb."
Ji Yun Lee
At 3:18 in the morning on July 29, 1989, the Stroud Township Volunteer Fire Department received a call that there was a fire raging at Hebron Camp. At 3:22, they arrived on the scent. They had all the flames extinguished within a half-hour, but by then, Ji Yun had burned to death.
As they firefighters worked, Han Tak Lee sat barefoot on a stone bench, staring impassively and silently.
"Mr. LEE remained almost emotionless and while in view of this officer made no attempts to console his wife when she arrived from New York later that day. Mrs. LEE on the other hand was being escorted to the scene and upon nearing the burnt building almost collapsed and had to be physically assisted from the scene."
- Report of State Trooper Thomas Jones, acting as county fire marshall
Han Tak Lee's trial was a parade of scientific errors and cultural miscommunications.
First, the science: The state's case rested on claims once believed to be absolutely true in fire investigation that were later proven false through advances in fire science. Anyone familiar with the Cameron Todd Willingham case in Texas will recognize many of the same mistakes from that investigation were made in this one - alligator charring, "pour patterns," and glass crazing, to name a few. In 1989, these were all but universally accepted as signs that accelerants were used to start the fire, and thus that arson was committed.
In fact, none of these proved arson. Fire investigators had discovered many of these purported arson indicators when sifting through homes destroyed in the Oakland firestorm of 1991. Those houses were obviously not burned in arsons, but many of the supposed indicators were clearly present. Still, by 1989 standards, the state of the "science" argued that the fire was intentionally set.
...Well, most of the science, at least. Some of the claims made by the state's expert witnesses were simply ridiculous. One state witness claimed to have calculated that the amount of fuel burned and the duration of the fire meant that a large quantity of accelerant was needed. The figure he arrived at was 62 gallons of fuel, plus several extra gallons of gasoline on top of that. That would have resulted in a cabin-sized puddle of several centimeters in depth. On its face, it's absurd, but the jury never heard a strong counter-claim.
Second, the cultural problems: Han Tak Lee's outward stoicism was misinterpreted as indifference. His lack of English-language proficiency meant the investigators were reliant on translators who appear to have been hit-or-miss. Explanations of how men from his culture would respond to family tragedy were never given to the jury. Instead, jurors heard a story of a man so depraved he wouldn't even offer his wife support when she arrived at the scene hours after the fire. Two jurors later said that the depictions of Lee as cold and uncaring were at least as important to their verdict as the scientific testimony.
With these two factors (plus the most damning fact of all in any criminal trial involving a fatal fire - the defendant survived while someone else did not), the district attorney obtained a conviction, and Han Tak Lee was sentenced to life in prison.
Han Tak Lee in 1990, at the time of his trial
"The goal of science is the systematic pursuit of knowledge through the rigorous testing and empirical analysis of hypotheses. In science only those hypotheses whose validity can be empirically proven survive. Through this scientific method, we are assured that the hypotheses that we use to examine events occurring around us have legitimate predictive power. Judged against these benchmarks, there is now substantial evidence which suggests that what was thought to be science in the field of arson investigation in the late 1980's was little more than supposition and superstition."
- U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson
It's been over 23 years, and despite the fact that the scientific testimony against Han Tak Lee is now recognized to be false, it wasn't until late last week that a court recommended his conviction be overturned. Since this ruling came from a magistrate judge, the federal district judge overseeing the case could ignore the recommendation. Or, accepting the recommendation, the state could appeal, or attempt to retry Mr. Lee (even though the district attorney has admitted that, as much of the state's evidence has been "misplaced" during the appeals, he would not be able to bring a successful prosecution again). Or, just to be spiteful, the D.A. could order Lee to be held for the full 120-day period in the hope that, perhaps, Mr. Lee's advanced age and the stress on his body from decades in prison will lead to the sentence being completed as intended.
But hopefully, Mr. Lee will manage to walk out of his confinement as a free man later this summer, breathing free air for the first time in 23 years, and knowing that his name has been cleared of the ash-colored stain that has wrongly marred it for too damn long.
The story of Han Tak Lee is nothing if not Kafkaesque - being locked up for a crime he didn't commit, surrounded by a language he doesn't understand, in a country that isn't truly his own, forced to fight countless court battles just to have the right to have his case reexamined for actual innocence. The life he has left is very likely to be short, and the enormity of what he lost in the fire has surely taken its toll. But whether he weeps, or smiles, or falls to his knees in prayer, or damns the names of everyone who put him in his situation, I hope that the news that he receives today will at least let a little brightness back into his dark life.
Once someone tells him, that is.