HARRISBURG Pa. (Reuters) - A man whose murder conviction was quashed this summer was granted bail by a federal magistrate on Friday after nearly 25 years in a Pennsylvania prison on charges he had set a fire that killed his daughter at a Korean religious retreat.
Han Tak Lee, 79, a businessman from Queens, New York, was convicted of arson and murder after his 20-year-old, mentally ill daughter died in a fire at the Hebron Camp in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, in July 1989.
The conviction was based in part on evidence that purportedly backed the theory that the fire was the result of arson. The scientific basis for the evidence has since been debunked.
Lee, who had maintained the fire started accidentally, was sentenced to life without parole.
“Our obligation is to find the truth and reach a prompt and fair adjudication of the issues before us,” Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson said on Friday after Lee asked through an interpreter to express his gratitude. “There is no need for thanks. We are just doing our job.”
Earlier this summer, U.S. District Judge William Nealon accepted a recommendation from Carlson and threw out Lee’s state court conviction. He gave the Monroe County District Attorney a 120-day deadline to decide if he will appeal.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bernal on Friday did not oppose Lee’s release on bail. He said his office is reviewing whether to retry Lee. The current district attorney in the county, E. David Christine Jr., is the same prosecutor who put Lee in prison in 1990.
Lee’s lawyer, Peter Goldberger of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, worked for more than 15 years to persuade authorities that Lee’s conviction was based on unscientific evidence.
Lee was freed from a state prison in Houtzdale, Pennsylvania, on Friday, met by a friend, and driven 120 miles to Harrisburg for the bail hearing.
A crowd of ethnic Korean supporters and media waited outside the federal courthouse for his arrival.
The scientific findings about detecting arson that finally freed Lee were first presented to the Monroe County Common Pleas Court in 1993 by John J. Lentini, an expert who spent years trying to debunk beliefs long held as gospel by police that were not backed up by science.
Lee will live in Queens pending a decision on a retrial. He is an American citizen, but speaks little English.
Carlson freed him on unsecured $50,000 bail and confined him to travel in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Editing by Frank McGurty and Mohammad Zargham