By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that an 80-year-old Korean-American businessman does not have to return to prison for the death of his daughter in 1989.
Han Tak Lee spent 24 years in a Pennsylvania prison before a federal magistrate last year ordered him freed, concluding that nearly all the technical evidence used to convict Lee was based on beliefs about arson fires that have since been discredited.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled unanimously that Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson made the right decision.
"It should be over now,” said Peter Goldberger, an attorney for Lee. “It was a very fact-specific decision that closes the door.”
Nearly everything that was believed about arson when Lee was tried has since been debunked, Goldberger argued on his client's behalf.
Lee was serving a life prison sentence after a jury in 1990 convicted him of murder by arson of his daughter Ji Yun Lee, 20, at a religious retreat in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania.
A turning point in the case came in the 1990s, Goldberger said, when scientists studied homes destroyed by a California wildfire and found in the ruins the same sort of indicators that for years had been used to prove arson.
There have been more than 50 arson exonerations since in the United States, Goldberger said.
Neither Matthew Bernal, the assistant Monroe County district attorney who argued for Lee's return to prison, nor District Attorney David Christine, who prosecuted Lee, could be reached for comment.
Bernal argued unsuccessfully that there was “ample other evidence” to convict Lee.
Pamela Wilkins, a lawyer who also worked on the case, said Lee was "obviously very, very happy” over the news.
"I told him that he could relax, and it was a good day," she said.
Lee, who lived in New York City, had taken his daughter to the religious retreat at the urging of his pastor.
Clergy prayed over her and sought to cast out the devil, according to court testimony. She died in a fire early the next morning.
At Lee’s trial, prosecutors argued that he was angry at his daughter for embarrassing the family and pointed to his stoic response to her death as evidence of his guilt.
Arson investigators testified that they found multiple ignition points and other factors then believed to be proof that the fire had been intentionally set.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Steve Orlofsky)