COMMENT Few But Not Forgotten: Asian Americans Reentering Society After Being Wrongfully Convicted

Comment
By Brittany Chiang
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

Asian American exonerees, like the formerly incarcerated, often lack resources, receiving little assistance from the government to facilitate reentry.  In the case of Asian Americans, this is partially due to their classification as a “model minority.”[1]  They encounter unique challenges because “the portrayal of Asian Americans as successful permits the general public, government officials, and the judiciary to ignore or marginalize the contemporary needs of Asian Americans.”[2]  Moreover, after serving time for crimes they did not commit, exonerees who are Asian American are likely to lack support from the Asian American community when assimilating back to society. The cases of Kin-Jin “David” Wong, Chol Soo Lee, and Han Tak Lee exemplify the distinct issues that wrongfully incarcerated Asian Americans face upon reentry.[3]

I. Kin-Jin “David” Wong

Kin-Jin Wong was convicted of second-degree murder in 1987 for allegedly stabbing and causing the death of a fellow inmate at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.[4] Wong had never met the victim, was nowhere near the victim when the killing occurred, and was never given a translator in his Chinese dialect.[5]  Wong’s conviction was later vacated, and the matter was remitted to the trial court for a new trial.[6]  After his release in 2005, Wong decided that returning to Hong Kong would be his best option.[7]  Wong decided that if China agreed, he would “head[] back to his native village, where he no longer knows anyone. His father is dead. His mother lives far away, in Hong Kong.”[8]

The David Wong Support Committee, which involved “dedicated, persistent grassroots organizing, widespread outreach, and broad-based coalition-building” in Kin-Jin Wong’s case, exemplifies the Asian American community’s potential to band together to raise awareness about an individual’s case.[9]   Nevertheless, Wong’s preference of moving to China, a place where he no longer had any type of support network, demonstrates the need for more involvement from Asian Americans in the prison reform movement.[10]

II. Chol Soo Lee

Chol Soo Lee was a Korean-American man who was convicted of a 1973 gang murder in San Francisco.[11]  After being freed from prison in 1983, Lee “did a number of odd jobs including janitorial work, and years later he was burned while carrying out an arson as part of an insurance scheme.”[12]  Lee believes that “former prisoners are in dire need of reintegration services, especially Asian Americans, who may feel guilt and judgment from their community upon their return.”[13]  Asian Americans may experience this added burden as a result of Asian cultures that place importance on avoiding public shame.[14]  Increased involvement from the Asian American community in prison reform and reentry efforts would help counteract the particular stressors placed on Asian American exonerees by virtue of their cultures.

III. Han Tak Lee

After 24 years, Han Tak Lee was released following his 1990 conviction of arson and murder in connection with the death of his daughter, Ji Yun Lee, in a tragic cabin fire at a religious retreat.[15]  Han Tak Lee’s conviction was overturned on the basis of faulty science.[16] At Lee’s trial, the scientific evidence presented against him was undisputed, and showed that the fire that consumed his daughter was “deliberately set by him in a calculated fashion.”[17] In 2014, it was found that the fire science presented to Lee’s jury was now “little more than superstition.”[18]  The little media coverage that has shed light on his release reports a simple message: Han Tak Lee holds no grudge against the United States, continues to love America, and plans to stay in New York.[19]  The positivity that Han Tak Lee has exuded to the media is highly commendable, particularly due to the time he endured as the lone Korean speaker at a 2,061-inmate prison.[20]  Even so, increased involvement from the Asian American community could have helped him in the stages leading up to his conviction and may have help to speed up exoneration.[21]

IV. Discussion

Former prisoners who are Asian American often do not receive support from the Asian American community, creating “ticking time bombs” who will continue committing crimes in their respective communities once released.[22]  The lack of support from their community stems from how “Asian culture does not promote raising awareness” of the needs of incarcerated individuals.[23]  It also stems from the notion that many Asian American prisoners commit crimes within the Asian American community, which tends to be less willing to help prisoners.[24]  Exonerees are particularly affected by this phenomenon because once incarcerated, their chances of getting support from the Asian American community may be significantly decreased despite their innocence. Incarcerated Asian Americans “continue to be victimized twice, [] not only by themselves, but by the government and [] by the community.”[25]

Although there are relatively few documented cases of wrongfully convicted Asian Americans, it is crucial to keep in mind the magnitude of convicting the innocent and evaluate each case on its own individual basis.[26]  Asian Americans from countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in particular are often disadvantaged by weaker schools and support services, leaving them vulnerable to “language barriers, high levels of poverty, and widespread [. . . PTSD] and depression.”[27]  These foundational issues are compounded when wrongfully convicted Asian Americans are released without a proper support system.

V. Recommendations

Asian American involvement in the prison reform movement could help to eradicate issues that Asian American prisoners, particularly exonerees, face upon return to society. Community involvement would be beneficial to wrongfully incarcerated Asian Americans during both their time in prison and their transition back to society once released.[28]  Increased involvement from the Asian American community could start with gathering data and funding research to find out more about the state of Asian Americans in prison.[29]  This could be challenging, however, due to the minimal data that exists. For example, one study found that only two out of 337 exonerees who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States were Asian American since 1989.[30]

In future studies, it would be interesting to analyze how racial and cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and wrongful convictions, particularly because high rates of arrests and incarceration vary from subgroup to subgroup.[31]  In Han Tak Lee’s case, the Korean to English interpretation of his statements in the hours following his daughter’s death and his cultural stoicism, which was construed as nonchalance, helped the prosecutor paint a picture in the jury’s mind that could be analyzed as a component leading to his wrongful conviction.[32]  From the beginning stages of accusation, Asian American defendants should have increased support from their community to decrease future wrongful convictions. Moreover, for Asian Americans who have been wrongfully incarcerated, the Asian American community should work together to help them assimilate back into society, mitigating the additional stresses placed upon them by their cultural environment.


[1] See Robert S. Chang, Toward an Asian American Legal Scholarship: Critical Race Theory, Post-Structuralism, and Narrative Space, 1 Asian Am. L.J. 1259 (1994); Daina C. Chiu, The Cultural Defense: Beyond Exclusion, Assimilation, and Guilty Liberalism, 82 Calif. L. Rev. 1053, 1083 (“Asian Americans value family, education, and hard work, they achieve economic success.”); see also Brian D. Johnson and Sara Betsinger, Punishing the “Model Minority”: Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts, 47 Criminology 1045, 1078-79 (2009) (“Asians represent the fastest growing minority group in America, and they now constitute a sizeable number of federal inmates. Moreover, their unusual position in the racial hierarchy of society provides a unique opportunity to assess competing theoretical perspectives vis-a-vis the intersection of race and punishment in society. The current research, therefore, broadens contemporary debates on racial disparity by systematically examining sentencing decisions for Asian offenders in U.S. federal courts.”).

[2] See Chang, supra note 1.

[3] See The National Registry of Exonerations, The University of Michigan Law School, http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/detaillist.aspx?View={FAF6EDDB-5A68-4F8F-8A52-2C61F5BF9EA7}&FilterField1=Race&FilterValue1=Asian (showing that nine out of 1,693 exonerees in the United States are Asian); see also Jungwon Kim, Lost Time, Model Minority (June/July 1999), http://modelminority.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=197:justice-for-david-wong-&catid=42:law&Itemid=56; see also Julie Ha, Chol Soo Lee, Who Sparked Early Pan-Asian American Movement, Dies at 62, KoreAm (Dec. 3, 2014), http://iamkoream.com/chol-soo-lee-who-sparked-early-pan-asian-american-movement-dies-at-62/; see also Old arson-murder rap tossed, man is set free, USA Today (Aug. 22, 2014, 3:45PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/22/arson-murder-han-tak-lee/14451491/.

[4] People v. Wong, 11 A.D.3d 724 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2004); Daniel S. Medwed, Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent, 69 (New York Univ. Press 2012); see also Maurice Possley, David Wong: Other New York Murder Cases with Inadequate Legal Defense (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3763.

[5] Justice for David Wong, Model Minority (June/July 1999), http://modelminority.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=197:justice-for-david-wong-&catid=42:law&Itemid=56; see also Megan Grandinetti, Ensuring Access To Justice For Non-English-Speaking Criminal Defendants: Denial Of Access To Other-Language Legal Materials Or Assistance As An Extraordinary Circumstance For Equitable Tolling, Seton L. Rev. 1479 (2008), available at http://law.shu.edu/Students/academics/journals/law-review/Issues/archives/upload/Grandinetti-final.pdf (“Within the criminal justice system, an indigent, non-English-speaking criminal defendant needs significant aid in the preparation of a post-conviction proceeding”).

[6] People v. Wong, 11 N.Y.S.3d 724 (App. Div. 2004) (“County Court, assuming without finding that all of defendant’s evidence satisfied the other statutory criteria, concluded that the evidence was not of such character as to create a probability that, had it been received at trial, the verdict would have been more favorable to defendant. We disagree and therefore reverse.”).

[7] Wu Yijing, Wrongly jailed man to be deported from US, South China Morning Post (July 27, 2005 12:00am), http://www.scmp.com/article/509853/wrongly-jailed-man-be-deported-us (“But he has now accepted that returning to Hong Kong is his best option, and is said to be looking forward to being reunited with his sister and elderly mother”).

[8] Steve Fishman, He Got Life, New York Magazine 6 (June 13, 2005), http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/11955/index5.html.

[9] Siddhartha Joag, David Wong cleared of false charge, but faces deportation, Freedom Socialist (Aug. 2005), http://socialism.com/drupal-6.8/articles/david-wong-cleared-false-charge-faces-deportation.

[10] Id. (“If deported, David can look forward to a new life in a country he is no longer familiar with, where he has no network of friends or family to support him.”).

[11] Alex Dobuzinskis, California man whose wrongful conviction inspired Asian-American movement dies, Reuters (Dec 4, 2014, 8:27 PM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/05/us-usa-exonerated-california-idUSKCN0JJ03P20141205.

[12] Id.

[13] Chol Soo Lee, whose wrongful conviction helped spark the Asian American Movement, dies at 62, Reappropriate, http://reappropriate.co/2014/12/chol-soo-lee-whose-wrongful-conviction-helped-spark-the-asian-american-movement-dies-at-62/ (quoting Melissa Chin, The Story of Chol Soo Lee, Asian Week (Apr. 1, 2008), http://www.asianweek.com/2008/04/01/san-quentin-of-chol-soo-lee/).

[14]  Joseph F. Healey, Diversity and Society: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender 334 (SAGE Publications 2013).

[15] Old arson-murder rap tossed, man is set free, USA Today (Aug. 22, 2014, 3:45PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/22/arson-murder-han-tak-lee/14451491/; see also Lee v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI, 798 F.3d 159, 168 (3d Cir. Pa. 2015).

[16] New York man’s 1990 arson conviction overturned due to faulty science; 79-year-old set free after 24 years, New York Daily News (Aug. 22, 2014, 11:31AM),

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/n-y-man-1990-arson-conviction-tossed-due-faulty-science-article-1.1913239.

[17] Lee v. Tennis, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110736, *1 (M.D. Pa., June 13, 2014).

[18] Id. at *4.

[19] Paul Donnelley, Man wrongly jailed for 24 YEARS for killing his daughter in a house fire to go free, DailyMail.com (Aug. 22, 2014), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2731505/1990-arson-murder-rap-tossed-man-set-free.html#ixzz3xXQiPfdU; Tara Fowler, New York Man, Accused of Setting Fire That Killed Mentally Ill Daughter, Fights Appeal That Would Send Him Back to Prison, People (Aug. 6, 2015), http://www.people.com/article/han-tak-lee-fights-appeal-daughters-1989-fire-death; New York man’s 1990 arson conviction overturned due to faulty science, New York Daily News, 79-year-old set free after 24 years (Aug. 22, 2014), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/n-y-man-1990-arson-conviction-tossed-due-faulty-science-article-1.1913239.

[20] David Park, Trial by Fire, Next Gener.Asian Church (Dec. 10, 2006), http://nextgenerasianchurch.com/2006/12/10/trial-by-fire/.

[21] See Jennifer Lin, Was Jury Confused By Culture – Or Did He Kill His Daughter?, Philly.com, (April 28, 1992), http://articles.philly.com/1992-04-28/news/26002325_1_ji-yun-han-tak-lee-arson (“Supporters from New York City to Seoul are certain that Lee, who speaks little English, is a victim of fatal cultural misunderstandings.”).

[22]Asian Prisoners Panel Part 2/8, YouTube (Oct. 20, 2008), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Tv2J9HSCBY.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Daniel S. Medwed, Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction: Theoretical Implications and Practical Solutions, 51 Vill. L. Rev. 337 (2006), available at http://digitalcommons.law.villanova.edu/vlr/vol51/iss2/3 (”Yet, as fascinating (and frightening) as the overall numbers might be, personal accounts of wrongful conviction are equally compelling, serving as a reminder that each case represents an individual tragedy, a collision at the intersection of human error and chance.”).

[27] Kenneth Quinnell, Shattering the Model Minority Myth: Mass Incarceration and Asian and Pacific Islanders, AFL-CIO (Apr. 21, 2014), http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Political-Action-Legislation/Shattering-the-Model-Minority-Myth-Mass-Incarceration-and-Asian-and-Pacific-Islanders.

[28] See Soya Jung, I dream of Asian America #JusticeForAkaiGurley, Igniting a Model Minority Mutiny (Apr. 17, 2015), http://amc-modelminoritymutiny.tumblr.com/post/116668824330/from-i-dream-of-asian-america (“[T]hose of us directly experiencing criminalization, state surveillance, profiling, and attacks fueled by religious discrimination and fear know that Asians are still subjected to suspicion, mistrust, and hate, regardless of the model minority myth.”).

[29] Brian D. Johnson And Sara Betsinger, Punishing The “Model Minority”: Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes In Federal District Courts, Univ. of Maryland Dep’t of Criminology and Criminal Justice (2009), 1045, 1046-47, https://ccjs.umd.edu/sites/ccjs.umd.edu/files/pubs/JohnsonandBetsinger2009.pdf

(“As the fastest growing minority group in the United States, now constituting a sizeable incarcerated population, research on the criminal processing of Asian offenders is timely and needed. The absence of scholarship on Asian offenders is unfortunate given their unique niche in contemporary race relations in American society.”); see also Soya Jung and Yong Chan Miller, The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think, ChangeLab, 17 (April 2013),  http://www.changelabinfo.com/reports/ChangeLab_The-Importance-of-Asian-Americans.pdf (citing a volunteer organizer who commented, “We’re not even an organization. We don’t have any kind of funding. It’s all-volunteer… For the API … folks getting out of the system, they’re so invisible … because on the box that you check in prison, it’s ‘White, Black, Latino, Other.’ Even trying to get statistics of who was inside, we had to do our own survey … with contacts that we had, because you can’t go off of the statistics the institution has.”).

[30] DNA Exonerations Nationwide, Innocence Project (Jan. 15, 2016, 11:55 AM), http://www.innocenceproject.org/free-innocent/improve-the-law/fact-sheets/dna-exonerations-nationwide (Races of the 333 exonerees: 206 African Americans, 101 Caucasians, 24 Latinos, 2 Asian American).

[31] Ahn Ton, Study Finds High Poverty, Arrest Rates Among Some Asian American Males, Asian Philanthropy Forum, http://www.asianphilanthropyforum.org/study-finds-high-poverty-incarceration-rates-among-some-asian-american-males/ (citing Widening the Lens on Boys and Men of Color, Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) (June 10, 2013), http://aapip.org/files/publication/files/aapip_bymoc-final.screen.pdf).

[32] See Lee v. Tennis, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110736, *12 (M.D. Pa., June 13, 2014).

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