Fatal Arson Conviction in Pennsylvania Chucked

     (CN) – New science about a fatal 1989 fire exonerates a man convicted of killing his mentally ill daughter, the Third Circuit ruled, affirming habeas relief.
     The fire in question engulfed a cabin in Monroe County, Pa., where Han Tak Lee and his daughter, Ji Yun Lee, were staying for a religious retreat.
     Ji Yun Lee’s mental illness had given her suicidal and homicidal ideation throughout her life, according to the ruling.
     Before the Lees went to Pennsylvania, police officers had observed the daughter in a manic state at their New York home, unharmed but arguing with family members who were urging her to take her medications, according to the ruling.
     The court said Ji Yun Lee’s erratic behavior continued at the retreat. In the hours before the late-night fire, the woman jumped into a body of water and later had to be physically restrained.
     Han Tak Lee escaped the burning cabin where his daughter died, but was soon charged and convicted of arson and murder based on fire-science and gas-chromatography evidence.
     Lee was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but the Superior Court later remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.
     Though a panel of the Third Circuit would later conclude that the evidence uncovered in this hearing “provided ample reason to question the reliability of the arson investigation,” the trial court nevertheless rejected Lee’s claim that his daughter had killed herself.
     Lee’s appeals remained unsuccessful, with one pro se challenge kept pending for six years without the state ever responding to it.
     A federal habeas petition from Lee followed a similar trajectory, but the Third Circuit found in 2012 that the Middle District of Pennsylvania had mishandled his due-process claim.
     On the heels of an evidentiary hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson ordered Lee retried or released within four months of Aug. 8, 2014.
     The Third Circuit affirmed Wednesday, tossing aside the commonwealth’s claim that “tiny” hemorrhages in Ji Yun’s neck, smoke deposits in her windpipe, and elevated carbon monoxide levels showed that she had been strangled before the fire started.
     “As Magistrate Judge Carlson noted, this inference was weak,” Judge Thomas Ambro wrote for the three-judge panel.
     Both Monroe County coroner Robert Allen and forensic pathologist Isidore Mihalikis “acknowledged that the autopsy results were consistent with Ji Yun dying by a flashover rather than strangulation,” the ruling continues, using the technical term for a sudden engulfment of the room.
     The “determination that Ji Yun died by homicide was almost certainly colored by the now-debunked fire-science evidence,” Ambro added.
     The Philadelphia-based panel also rejected the claim that Lee had been inconsistent in his account of what happened.
     “Most of the ‘inconsistencies’ identified by the commonwealth are better characterized as minor details mentioned on some occasions and omitted on others,” Ambro wrote.
     The judge later added: “The district court characterized these discrepancies as ‘minor,’ noting that they could be explained by errors in translation from Korean to English.”     
     Lee’s attorney noted in an interview that Lee has been out of prison for the last year, on a recognizance bond pending the appeal by prosecutors.
     “Given the failure of that appeal, he should be released entirely, even from the bail, within a few weeks,” attorney Peter Goldberger said. “We sincerely hope that this solid decision of the Court of Appeals, upholding two very strong opinions by the magistrate judge and the district judge in the District Court, will finally mark the end of this case. There is no basis that I can see for any further proceedings of any kind, other than to make Mr. Lee’s release from his unjust conviction final and absolute.”
     Representatives for the commonwealth have not returned a request for comment.

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