Chol Soo Lee’s Complicated Heroism and Legacy
In 1974, Chol Soo Lee was wrongfully convicted of a murder committed in broad daylight at the busy San Francisco Chinatown intersection of Pacific Ave and Grant Ave. His trial was marked by grave omissions of evidence and a reliance on questionable and racist witness testimony. Nevertheless, at 21 years old, Lee was sentenced to life in prison. Then, in 1979, after Lee killed a fellow prisoner in a prison-yard altercation—an action he maintained was undertaken out of self-defense—Lee was handed the death penalty.
Hearing about this case, Korean American journalist K.W. Lee penned a series of articles questioning the initial verdict. These articles inspired the organization of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, a grassroots coalition of Asian American activists mobilized to raise awareness about Chol Soo’s case and collect funds and resources to support the overturning of his sentence. Through their work, they became one of the first waves in a growing movement to build solidarity around a shared Asian American identity. These activists’ efforts, and Chol Soo’s nobility in the face of his dehumanizing experiences, is the subject of the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi—filmmakers who owe their own journalistic careers in no small part to K.W. Lee’s mentorship. The film will be making its PBS premier on April 24, 2023.
Throughout his life, Chol Soo spoke about his punishing imprisonment—one that lasted ten years, four of them spent on death row—with two emotions rarely expressed in the same breath: gratitude and anger. When his sentence was finally reversed, Lee looked out at his elated advocates and heartily thanked them, before turning to the prosecutor, pointing at him, and screaming, “You knew all along I was innocent!” Asked how he felt about his time in prison, he called the question, naturally, a “very difficult” one. “I feel very bitter that I’ve been in prison all this time for a murder I did not commit. But at the same time, I’m very grateful that my case has become an educational experience for the Asian community.”
—Chol Soo Lee
The film tells Chol Soo Lee’s story through excerpts from his own memoir, Freedom Without Justice, and archival footage, including interviews. The focus on preserving Lee’s narrative through his own telling is wise: His charisma is possessing, his looks winning, his subtlety of expression affecting. In the late ‘70s, the publication of his suave black-and-white portraits no doubt did much to accelerate support for his cause. In the film, the gravitas of his lifelong existential struggle against a Kafkaesque nightmare is made poignant through his meaningful glances and poetic turns of phrase. Lee’s supporters sent him long letters, which he assiduously spent the early hours of the morning responding to from his cell.
The tragedy of Lee’s life was that he lived it from start to finish alone, even in those moments upon release when he was surrounded by friends who earnestly wished the very best for him. Lee, who moved to San Francisco from Seoul in adolescence, was the only Korean in a predominantly ethnically Chinese neighborhood growing up. He was sent to juvenile detention, then a psychiatric institution, criminalized for speaking poor English when he couldn’t speak up to defend himself. His crushing loneliness persisted when he reintegrated into society after his long years on death row, and he took care not to burden those who had never spent time in the carceral system with his demons. “A convict may have his own personal integrity and humanity burning within him, but then it’s a struggle to hold onto them,” he said. “I never discussed these feelings with my supporters… I didn’t want to bring dark clouds over them.”
After his release from prison, Lee didn’t always live up to what others expected from him (and what he expected from himself), and after periods of drug addiction and participation in gang activity, he agonized that he had become a “disappointment” and “disgrace.” His magnetism, so instrumental in assembling a coalition of supporters, now put him under undue pressure to keep the movement alive. I sensed, in viewing the many joyful-looking photographs from parties he attended after his release, that Chol Soo sometimes found himself surrounded by people who—with the warmest intentions—desperately wanted his story to have a happy ending. The reality, that damage from such serious errors can never be reversed, was possibly too sad to confront for some.
The documentary is unshy to suggest that such kind-hearted yet naive blinders can incur their own psychic cost, as they did on Chol Soo. I also wondered whether some of his fans, who were so eager and later so satisfied to see the redressing of the wrong done to their dashing celebrity, failed to see Chol Soo’s plight as one connected to a system of mass incarceration determined to criminalize certain populations over others—one that remained verily intact even as Chol Soo became a free man.
A key reason why Ha and Yi made this film, they say, is that not enough people know about him. Why Chol Soo’s story has been buried for so long, even among Asian people in the Bay Area, is complicated. In large part, it has to do with problems that strike at the heart of Asian American politics—primary among them is the category’s incoherence given that within it lie profound differences in immigration history and nationality. The challenge, then and now, is to figure out how to subsume those differences under the banner of a fight for justice for all.
Until his death in 2014, Lee found purpose speaking to Bay Area youth about the importance of Asian American solidarity and the unremitted evil of the criminal justice system. Rejecting the notion that he was a hero, he named K.W. Lee and other activists the true heroes in a cause for which he only served as a figurehead for. But his aspiration to fulfill the expectations of an emergent movement of Asian American people—to embody humanity, after a life spent battling the assumption of criminality—constituted a heroism of its own.
Jasmine Liu is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area currently based in New York.
Corrections were made on April 20, 2023: An earlier version of this review stated that Chol Soo Lee was initially convicted in 1973. He was convicted in 1974.
A prior version of this review stated that Chol Soo Lee was sentenced to life in prison at 23 years old. He was 21.
A prior version of this review stated that Chol Soo Lee was put on death row in 1977. He received the death penalty in 1979.
A prior version of this review stated that Chol Soo Lee spent eight years on death row. He spent four years on death row.
A prior version of this review mischaracterized the efforts of Chol Soo Lee’s supporters, allowing readers to potentially undermine the nature and significance of their organizing.