Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Justice for Chol Soo Lee
Southside People's Art Collective
Poster Text: Korean immigrant imprisoned for murder he did not commit
Demand Re-Trial For Chol Soo Lee!
In 1973, Chol Soo Lee, a 21-year-old Korean immigrant, was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit. A new documentary, entitled “Free Chol Soo Lee,” premiered last month, 39 years after he was freed from prison. It follows the complicated story of Chol Soo as a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, and America’s racist “justice” system.
Chol Soo Lee was born in Seoul, Korea during the Korean War (1950-53). His birth was the result of a rape. Ostracized by her family, his mother emigrated to the US without him. When he was 12, he emigrated to live with his mother in San Francisco.
The transition to a new country was not easy. Chol Soo had difficulty communicating in English and at school fought with peers and staff. He served time in juvenile detention and a psychiatric facility and was eventually dragged deeper into the school-to-prison pipeline.
In June 1973, Yip Yee Tak, a member of the Chinese American gang Wah Ching, was gunned down in Chinatown, San Francisco. Chol Soo was picked up by police after three white tourists placed him at the scene of the murder. There was no material evidence to justify their claims. Despite his innocence, Lee spent 10 years in San Quentin State Prison, eight of which were on death row.
While telling Chol Soo’s story, the documentary shows that justice works differently when the person on trial isn’t white. Chol Soo’s conviction and subsequent trial sparked a grassroots social justice movement and the formation of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, a landmark pan-Asian American solidarity movement which led to his release in 1983. “Free Chol Soo Lee” became their battle cry. This phrase meant to rectify his conviction, prove Chol Soo’s innocence, and call attention to the blatantly racist system which kept Chol Soo Lee imprisoned for a decade. He died in 2014, he was 62.