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Chol Soo Lee


On June 3, 1971, 32-year-old Yip Yee Tak, a grocer with possible ties to the Wah Ching gang, was shot to death on a busy street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Five witnesses to the incident described the killer as a clean-shaven Asian male between five-feet, six-inches and five-feet, ten-inches tall and weighing between 145 and 160 pounds. After their initial statements, the witnesses, who were all white, together viewed mug books at the police station and picked five photographs of men who they thought resembled the killer. One of the photographs was of Chol Soo Lee. Lee, who was 21 years old at the time of the Tak murder, had a juvenile record. The photo of him was several years old. Also, at the time of the crime, Lee wore a mustache and, at five-feet, two-inches tall, weighed 120 pounds.
 
On June 7, 1973, homicide investigator Frank Falzon arrested Chol Soo Lee for the murder of Yip Yee Tak. Of the five men whom the witnesses had chosen from the mug books, Lee was the only one arrested. He participated in a lineup with five other Asian males, none of whom were suspects in the case. Three of the five witnesses picked Lee, though several said they thought other men also looked like the shooter.
In the summer of 1974, Lee’s case was presented to a jury. Three witnesses testified they were sure Lee was the killer. The only additional evidence was an early ballistics report that matched the caliber of the murder weapon found near the scene of the crime with a bullet hole in Chol Soo Lee’s ceiling. Lee claimed he had accidentally discharged a weapon in his home days before Yip Yee Tak's murder. A further ballistics report indicated there was, in fact, no match. The results of the second report, however, were never turned over to the defense. On July 10, 1974, a jury convicted Lee of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
 
In 1977, Lee stabbed fellow inmate, Morrison Lee Needham, to death in the yard of Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, California. Lee’s original murder conviction was held as a special circumstance. While preparing for the Needham case, Lee’s new public defender, Leonard Tauman, discovered an all-points bulletin and a San Francisco Police Department interdepartmental memorandum pertaining to the Tak murder case, both of which had been withheld from Lee’s counsel in 1974. The documents indicated that the day after Yip Yee Tak’s murder, a man named Steven Morris called the San Francisco Police Department. Morris, who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, said over the phone that Lee was not the perpetrator.
 
In July of 1978, Lee filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that he was denied a fair trial for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, because the prosecution had suppressed evidence that was material to the case. Steven Morris testified at the hearings before the Sacramento Superior Court. The court granted Lee’s writ and his conviction was reversed. Lee remained in prison awaiting retrial of the murder of Yip Yee Tak and a decision in the prison stabbing case.
 
In the spring of 1979, a jury heard the murder case concerning Morris Lee Needham. Chol Soo Lee once again faced charges of first-degree murder. As there were many witnesses to the killing, Lee’s identity as the perpetrator was never in question. There was, however, the question of motive. Lee’s counsel asserted that Lee had acted in self-defense. The prosecution claimed Lee was a gun-for-hire, contracted by the Mexican-American gang La Nuestra Familia to kill Needham, an inmate with ties to the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood. In the end, the jury handed down a guilty verdict. Since the murder was committed while Lee was incarcerated for another first-degree murder, a sentence of death was mandatory. He was to be executed in the gas chamber.
 
In September of 1982, a San Francisco Superior Court jury acquitted Lee for the 1973 murder of Yip Yee Tak. As a result, his death sentence for prison slaying of Morris Lee Needham was reduced to a life sentence. Lee then appealed the court’s decision to find him guilty for Needham’s murder. In January of 1983, the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento reversed Lee’s conviction for that murder on the grounds of improper jury instruction. The judge in the original case was found to have failed to properly inform the jury that they could find Lee guilty of a charge lesser than first-degree murder, such as manslaughter.
 
In March of 1983, Lee was released from San Quentin State Prison, pending the retrial of the prison stabbing case. In the meantime Lee’s counsel and the prosecution arrived at a plea bargain agreement, which Judge K. Peter Saiers accepted in August. In exchange for a guilty plea in the prison stabbing, Lee was formally sentenced to time already served.
 
— Researched by Elizabeth Adams
State:CA
County:San Francisco
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1973
Convicted:1974
Exonerated:1982
Sentence:Life
Race:Asian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct