The Morning Call

Appeals court grants new look at Monroe County arson/murder case

By Peter Hall, Of The Morning Call

January 27, 2012

A New York man convicted in 1990 of killing his daughter by setting a fire at a Stroud Township church camp will get another chance to prove his innocence.

A New York man convicted in 1990 of killing his daughter by setting a fire at a Stroud Township church camp will get another chance to prove his innocence.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday granted Han Tak Lee a fresh look at physical evidence in his case, finding lower courts improperly denied his requests.

Lee has argued for more than 20 years that advances in fire investigation techniques will show the blaze was accidental, and not fueled by gallons of gasoline and kerosene, as a witness for the state testified during his trial.

"We're delighted and we're optimistic that we're going to see freedom after many long years of trying to get a court to listen to a strong claim of innocence," said Lee's attorney, Peter Goldberger of Ardmore.

Monroe County District Attorney David Christine, who prosecuted Lee's case during his first term, said his office is considering an appeal. He noted the state Superior Court and a U.S. District Court rejected Lee's claims his lawyer failed to adequately defend him.

"The courts consistently ruled that you don't get another bite at the apple," Christine said.

Lee, now 76, is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in state prison.

A Korean immigrant who built a successful clothing business in Manhattan, Lee took his daughter to the Pentecostal church camp in rural Monroe County with the hope that prayer would ease her struggle with mental illness.

The fire that took Ji Yun Lee's life erupted in the early morning of July 29, 1989. Firefighters responding to the blaze found Han Tak Lee sitting calmly outside their cabin with two packed bags.

Rather than contesting expert testimony that the fire was arson, Lee's attorney argued that Ji Yun started the blaze to commit suicide.

Lee contended on appeal that new evidence about the nature of intentionally-set fires would show it was an accident.

Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project said advances in the science of arson investigation since the 1990s have had a similar impact on criminal justice as the advent of DNA testing.

"We are talking about conclusions that were given at Mr. Lee's trial that were not scientifically valid," Bluestine said.

But even when the district attorney's office consented to a reexamination of the evidence, a Monroe County judge denied a hearing, reasoning that it would place an undue burden on the state police.

Lee asked the 3rd Circuit to grant his request to conduct an investigation in support of an appeal in federal court. The three-judge panel found the lower court decisions denying opportunities to reexamine the evidence were improper and infringed on his constitutional right to due process of law.

"The ability to test the fire scene evidence is crucial because, without independent testing, Lee's expert cannot render an independent opinion … and instead must rely on other experts' reports to reach his conclusions," Judge Dolores K. Sloviter wrote.

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