(Reuters) - A Korean-American man who was wrongfully convicted of a 1973 gang murder in San Francisco and whose case inspired Asian-Americans of all backgrounds to mobilize for his freedom has died at age 62, friends said on Thursday.
Chol Soo Lee died on Tuesday at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco due to complications from a problem with his digestive system, said family friend Doris Yamasaki.
The social movement in support of Lee, which helped him gain a retrial that led a San Francisco jury to overturn his murder conviction in 1982, was the first of its kind to bring together Asian-Americans from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, said Richard Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Davis.
Tens of thousands of dollars for his legal defense came in from events such as student car washes and church fund-raisers.
Lee was not immediately freed after he was exonerated, because he had also been convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the 1977 stabbing death of a fellow prison inmate, a killing Lee contended was in self-defense against a neo-Nazi.
A California appeals court nullified that conviction and it was later reduced to second-degree murder, allowing him to be released from prison in 1983.
“We always said he was not an angel, but he certainly didn’t deserve to be on death row,” said Grant Din, community relations director at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, who was involved in the movement to free Lee.
Born in South Korea, Lee came to the United States at age 12 with his single mother and had trouble adjusting to life in his new home in the San Francisco Bay area, friends said.
Lee had served time in juvenile hall and was staying at a seedy hotel when police arrested him for the 1973 shooting death in San Francisco’s Chinatown of gang member Yip Yee Tak, Din said.
Witnesses picked Lee out of a police lineup, even though they had previously given a description of a shooter that did not match Lee, said attorney Ranko Yamada, who was involved in his defense.
After he was freed from prison in 1983, Lee did a number of odd jobs including janitorial work, and years later he was burned while carrying out an arson as part of an insurance scheme, Din said.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech