HARRISBURG — Scarcely three hours after Han Tak Lee walked out of Houtzdale state prison Friday, he began to reclaim a life held in limbo for nearly a quarter-century behind bars.
Cleared of killing his daughter in a fire at a Monroe County church camp — the crime for which Lee was sentenced to life in prison without parole — the former New York clothing store owner is free on bail until prosecutors decide whether they will retry him.
After two decades of appeals, Lee's case stands among a handful across the nation in which a revolution in the science of investigating arson has brought vindication for the wrongly accused, his lawyer said Friday.
Outside the federal courthouse in Harrisburg where Lee appeared for a bail hearing Friday afternoon, elation over his release was apparent among supporters from the Korean-American community in Queens, where he lived before his conviction.
Dozens of journalists, many for Korean-language television and newspapers, crowded around the white SUV that brought Lee from the Clearfield County prison to the courthouse to capture his first words as a free man. Inside, after U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson released Lee to the supervision of a family friend, Lee prayed in Korean with the people who had rallied behind his appeals.
Emerging from the courthouse after the hearing, Lee, 79, told reporters he struggled for words to express his happiness to again be "a normal U.S. citizen." He thanked those who believed in his innocence, and said he could repay them only "by making the most of my renewed life," according to a translation of Lee's prepared remarks.
Lee, who appeared frail but in good spirits, then got back into the SUV to return to New York, where his friend Kyung Sohn had arranged medical and psychological checkups and has a furnished apartment waiting in his old neighborhood in Queens.
Sohn is responsible for ensuring Lee meets the conditions of his bail.
For Kathleen Chung of Philadelphia, Lee's release justified 15 years of deeply personal involvement in the fate of a man she had never met. Chung and her husband, Kevin Young Chung, learned of Lee's case when she rented a Korean television documentary at a neighborhood grocery store.
Skeptical of the prosecution's claim that Lee, who did not drive, used dozens of gallons of gasoline to start the blaze, and convinced that language barriers and cultural misunderstandings had led police to wrongly suspect Lee, the couple became consumed with the case, Chung said.
Kathleen Chung set out to find an attorney, working down a list of the top 100 lawyers in Philadelphia Magazine. She found that most of them wanted tens of thousands of dollars to review the case. Then she spoke to Peter Goldberger, who offered to look at Lee's files for only $700.
Goldberger has served as Lee's pro bono and court-appointed attorney since 1999. The Chungs became leaders of the National Committee to Free Han Tak Lee.
In a June opinion, Carlson wrote that Lee's conviction was based on junk science and should not stand.
"The verdict in the matter rests almost entirely upon scientific pillars which have now eroded," Carlson wrote.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon adopted Carlson's recommendations, ordering Lee's release and giving Monroe County prosecutors until Dec. 6 to retry him. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bernal said Friday that his office plans to review Nealon's decision for a possible appeal.
Monroe County District Attorney David Christine, who prosecuted Lee in 1990 in his first term as district attorney, did not return a call to his office Friday.
Goldberger said he will act quickly to have an appeal dismissed if one is filed.
"We are not going to go through another full appeal process if I have anything to do with it," Goldberger said.
Beneath his elation at Lee's release, Goldberger expressed frustration that the facts and testimony that ultimately convinced Carlson and Nealon to set Lee free are essentially the same as those presented to a Monroe County judge in 1993 and again in 1999.
"The state courts 15 years ago brushed us off and told us we were challenging the truth," Goldberger said.
Lee took his 20-year-old daughter, Ji Yun Lee, to Camp Hebron, a Korean Christian retreat in Stroud Township the day after she suffered a breakdown and began hurling objects from the family's third-floor Queens apartment.
The fire was reported about 3 a.m. July 29, 1989, and police and firefighters first on the scene found Lee sitting calmly on a bench with his luggage beside him. His daughter's badly burned body was found in a hallway near their cabin's bathroom.
An autopsy revealed she had burned to death rather than succumbed to smoke inhalation, but also noted the presence of small bruises on her neck that could have been signs of strangulation.
Lee testified through an interpreter that he awoke to find the cabin filled with smoke and ran outside, assuming his daughter would do the same. He re-entered the building twice to search for Ji Yun Lee, retrieving his luggage and retreating from the smoke and flames only after finding the bathroom door locked, according to transcripts filed in the case.
Arson investigation expert John Lentini took on Lee's case after a CBS News reporter asked him to review files for a story, Lentini said in a May hearing. He found that much of what a fire marshal and state police investigators said was clear evidence that the fire had been set was based in folklore and superstition.
The Monroe County district attorney's office has since conceded that many of the observations by investigators are meaningless. Burn patterns on the floor and collapsed bedsprings — once widely accepted and taught as signs of an intentional fire — have now been discredited, Lentini said.
Lentini also argued that the original tests on Lee's clothing and debris from the fire scene — which Christine cited in his closing argument as proof he had used a flammable liquid to start the fire — were shown to be unreliable when he performed new tests on the evidence.
Twenty years ago, Lentini was on the cutting edge of fire science. A decade ago, his understanding of fire science had become mainstream, but it took an additional 10 years to convince a court of Lee's innocence, Goldberger said.
"Hopefully, this brilliant opinion by Judge Carlson will have an impact across the country to bring the reversals we should be seeing," Goldberger said.
During Lee's bail hearing, when Lee asked permission to thank the court, Carlson took the opportunity to give his view of the court's job — prompt and fair adjudication of criminal cases — telling Lee that no thanks were necessary.
"After a quarter of a century, I know we all share the view that the prompt and fair resolution of this case is in the interest of the commonwealth, Mr. Lee and the nation," Carlson said.
Afterward, Goldberger said he was glad that Carlson didn't say that the system had worked.
"The system only works when it recognizes the truth the first time it is presented," Goldberger said.