Chol Soo Lee

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Chol Soo Lee was a Korean American immigrant who was wrongfully convicted for the 1973 murder of Yip Yee Tak, a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader, and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, he was sentenced to death for the killing of another prisoner, Morrison Needham, though Chol Soo claimed self-defense. Chol Soo served ten years of his sentence for the killing of Yip Yee Tak of which he was later acquitted, eight of those on death row. Investigative reporting by K. W. Lee sparked the formation of the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, which spurred a national pan-Asian movement. Chol Soo finally won his freedom in 1983 through the help of the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee.


Lee was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1952 and immigrated to America in 1964. Not speaking English or having parents to guide him, he had a difficult life. He was arrested on June 7, 1973, and convicted of first-degree murder for killing Yip Yee Tak, who was gunned down in broad daylight on June 3, 1973. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Alerted by young Asian American supporters of Chol Soo Lee from San Francisco about his innocence, investigative reporter K. W. Lee from The Sacramento Union, embarked on a six-month investigation in June 1977, into what became known as the "Alice in Chinatown Murder Case". On October 8, 1977, Lee killed Morrison Needham in a prison yard altercation. Lee, who claimed self-defense, was charged with murder with special circumstances, which calls for the death penalty.

The first of two articles by K. W. Lee appeared in The Sacramento Union on January 29, 1978. It questioned the verdict in the first case.

The continuing investigative series prompted a local drive to form the first Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, organized by then law school graduate Jay Yoo and Davis school teacher Grace Kim in Sacramento, third generation Japanese American college student Ranko Yamada, and third-generation Korean Americans Gail Whang and Brenda Paik Sunoo in the Bay area. This led to a national coalition of Asian American activists, and Korean community groups and churches in February 1978.

On August 11, 1982, the retrial of the first case began, and on September 3, 1982, the San Francisco County Superior Court jury acquitted Lee of the murder of Yip Yee Tak, and its foreman joined the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. On January 14, 1983, California's 3rd District Court of Appeal nullified Chol Soo Lee's death sentence for the Needham stabbing, citing the Stockton trial judge's incorrect jury instructions, and for allowing hearsay testimony in the death penalty phase of the trial.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Peter Seires ordered Chol Soo Lee to be released on March 28, 1983, after Lee's supporters pledged property worth twice the amount of the $250,000 bail. However, the prosecution moved to retry Lee on the prison killing charge. Lee's co-counsels were able to plea bargain on the Needham case. Lee, who had served nearly ten years in prison, was given credit for time served and freed from prison.

Lee did not receive an apology or compensation from the state. Lee lived the rest of his life in San Francisco.

In the midst of numerous speaking engagements, Lee shared his story with Bay Area youth, stressing the importance of engaging with the Asian American community. He also drafted an autobiography which was completed after his death by University of California at Davis professor Richard S. Kim, Freedom without Justice.

Chol Soo Lee died on December 3, 2014 in San Francisco, CA. He was 62 years old.


The 1989 film True Believer is loosely based on Lee's retrial and acquittal, and the character of Shu Kai Kim in the film (played by Yuji Okumoto) is based on Lee.

See also[edit]


  • A Silent Plea, Chol Soo Lee, Amerasia Journal 31:3 (2005): 109–110
  • A Conversation with Chol Soo Lee and K. W. Lee, Richard S. Kim, Amerasia Journal 31:3 (2005): 76–108

External links[edit]

  • Ranko Yamada (Fall–Winter 1982). "What Price Justice? A commentary on the acquittal of Chol Soo Lee". East Wind Magazine. 1 (2). Archived from the original on November 22, 2008.
  • "A story of wrongful conviction: Interview with Chol Soo Lee by Alice Kim Sept 2006". The New Abolitionist. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Archived from the original on October 10, 2010.
  • KW Lee Center
  • Melissa Chin (April 1, 2008). "The Story of Chol Soo Lee". Asianweek. Archived from the original on November 7, 2010.
  • Julie Ha (December 3, 2014). "Chol Soo Lee, Who Sparked Early Pan-Asian American Movement, Dies at 62". KoreAm. Archived from the original on December 9, 2014.