An elderly man who spent 24 years in prison for his daughter's death in a fire will remain free after a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania on Wednesday refused to reinstate his murder conviction.
Han Tak Lee, 80, a native of South Korea who earned U.S. citizenship, was exonerated and freed last year after a judge concluded the case against him was based on since-discredited scientific theories about arson. Prosecutors appealed, saying that other evidence pointed to his guilt.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, meaning Lee will stay out of prison.
Lee said Wednesday in a brief phone interview that he was happy about the ruling. His attorney, Peter Goldberger, called on prosecutors to drop the case.
"I hope, now, that they will finally see there is no basis for this conviction," Goldberger said. "They can say it's nobody's fault, that science changed, that this is over now, and the federal court has had the last word."
Monroe County District Attorney David Christine, who prosecuted Lee in 1990, said he will consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Although we are disappointed in the ruling, we know that the Court of Appeals gave very serious consideration to the arguments of all parties, and entered a decision only after careful and thoughtful scrutiny of all the relevant facts and legal issues," he said via email. "However, we remain convinced that in spite of the debunking of some of the (prosecution witnesses) on the cause and origin of fire accepted by the scientific community in the 1980s, the defendant's guilt was otherwise established by relevant and admissible evidence presented to the jury."
Lee's conviction was one of dozens to be called into question around the U.S. amid revolutionary changes in investigators' understanding of how an intentionally set fire can be distinguished from an accidental one.
The New York City shop owner had taken his 20-year-old, mentally ill daughter to a religious retreat in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains where, prosecutors say, he set fire to their cabin. Lee has long contended the 1989 fire was accidental.
A state police fire marshal testified at Lee's trial that the wood in the Lees' cabin was deeply charred and blistered, that the windows had a series of tiny fractures and that he had found at least eight separate points of origin for the fire — all evidence of arson, according to the orthodoxies of the day.
The jury convicted Lee of murder and sentenced him to life without parole.
After years of appeals, the 3rd Circuit granted Lee's request for an independent review of the evidence. The review, led by a magistrate judge, concluded the expert testimony used to convict him was based on "little more than superstition."
"The commonwealth concedes that, due to scientific developments since Lee's trial in 1990, the basis for all of this evidence is now invalid," the appeals court said in Wednesday's ruling.
Prosecutors pointed to what they said was other evidence supporting the conviction, including a pathologist's opinion that Lee's daughter might have been strangled before the fire and Lee's stoic demeanor afterward.
But the appeals judges agreed with the lower court's determination that Lee's passivity at the fire scene likely stemmed from a cultural taboo against showing emotion in public, and said the strangulation theory "was supported by very little forensic evidence."
Lee, who returned to Queens after his release from prison, told The Associated Press last month that he still loved America and "I expect America to make the right decision."