An interview with Chol Soo Lee
By: Alice Kim
Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American immigrant, was wrongfully convicted for the 1973 killing of a Chinatown gang leader in San Francisco and sentenced to life in prison. He was then sentenced to death for the self-defense killing of another prisoner. Chol Soo spent ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit, eight of those on death row. Investigative reporting by KW Lee sparked the formation the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee which spurred a national pan-Asian movement. Chol Soo finally won his freedom in 1983.
Alice Kim: What was it like growing up in America?
Chol Soo Lee: I came to the United States so that I could work like an adult to help support my uncle and auntie in Korea. After I arrived here, I learned that you couldn’t really go to work at the age of 12. So that was a big disappointment.
I had a difficult time at school. Big fights and stuff like that. Any time a person made fun of me I started fighting, just like any kid would do. Back then, there was no community centers, no outreach for Korean youth. I did not adjust well.
You were arrested for the 1973 killing of a Chinatown gang leader when you were 20 years old. At the time, the San Francisco police had 16 other unsolved gang-related murders on their hands. Can you describe the political climate at the time of your arrest?
Around 1969 or so there was a newly formed gang called Wah Ching. And there was another gang that was in opposition to the Wah Ching. The climate in Chinatown was very tense. There was a lot of straight out execution murders in the streets of Chinatown. From the mayor’s office it came down that this case has got to be resolved because of all the numerous killings that happened before, and because there were no arrests in those murders.
What were the issues in your original trial? What kind of racism did you face?
The subject of me being Korean [for a Chinese gang killing] was never brought up. The attorney who was defending me seemed to be in bed with the prosecutor. He hired an investigator just a few days before the trial who basically went down to Chinatown near the area where the person was killed and asked around to people did anyone witness the killing. There was no way anybody was going to come forward and say they saw anything. I was poorly defended and it was an all-white jury.
Can you talk about the formation of the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee?
After I was charged with a prison killing, a small article appeared in one of the papers, which caught the eye of an investigative reporter by the name of K.W, Lee. And when he saw my name, he thought that sounds like a Korean name. So he decided to write me a letter asking if I was Korean and would it be okay for him to visit me. I consented. And from there on, he started investigating my case. He found out I was totally innocent of the Chinatown killing and that in the prison killing, I was defending myself. His article came out questioning both of the charges against me, and that helped to start the formation of the defense committee.
What role did the committee play in winning your freedom?
They raised money to hire the best attorneys possible—Leonard Weinglass—to file the writ of habeus corpus, which we won. I would either be dead or still in prison, or executed by now [without the defense committee]. I was sent to death row in 1979 and I was in solitary confinement form 1977-1979 while I was going through my trial for the prison killing. I appreciated the fact that there was a lot of people out there caring for me. I took everything personal, you know. I felt like these people were defending me so I took it as a friendship and that kept my spirits up.
What was your life like after you won your freedom?
After I came out, I worked part-time for Korean multi-service center which is a kind of community center as a receptionist for about six months. Then I got a job as a janitor. While I was working as a janitor, there was a strike in 1985. And I was a shop steward for the 1 Market Plaza, one of the biggest janitor buildings that we were cleaning up. I met Pat Jackson, one of the top SEIU organizers. I was just kind of talking to her and one day she asked, what do you want to do kiddo. I said I want to be just like you. After the strike was over, I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a union organizer. So I worked with some of the top union organizers in the country, I learned a lot about political campaigns and union organizing.
But I had a problem. I didn’t realize how institutionalized I was at the time. I was very immature. I started using cocaine. It got worse and worse. It eventually led to me resigning from the work, and I was back in the streets. I went back to prison in 1990 and did 18 months on a drug possession charge. I came out in ‘91 and I came back to San Francisco. I started getting involved in some of the Chinatown gangs for the first time in my life and I got injured with burns over 85 percent of my body.
What is your life like now?
I stopped using drugs back in 1995 and I have not gone back to it to this date. You know, even though I’ve been free since 1983, I guess spending those 10 years in prison has an impact on my mentality, a streetwise prison mentality. I’m not still fully adjusted. That’s one of the greatest challenges of my life, how to live in free society as a free man.
I’ve been trying to write this biography with K.W. Lee, the person that broke the story on my case and Tom Byun, who did the chief reporting for the Korean Times. I wrote over 600 pages handwritten.
I’m also working with the Life After Exoneration program to build a west coast exoneree committee. Our goal is to be self-supporting, to form our own committee of exonerees.
I’m trying to find some volunteer work with Asian American youth or ex-drug addicts. So those are the goals I’m continuing to be focused on. And trying to keep my life stable, which is very challenging.
Do you want to be involved in the anti-death penalty movement?
Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you (laughing). There’s been so many cases that have come to light where people were falsely put on death row and put in prison. I think that together as a community, we can make changes in the prison system as well as in the best interest of the community.