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New Fire-Expert Examination Allowed in 1989 Arson, Murder Case

By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on January 30, 2012 3:09 PM

More than two decades after Han Tak Lee was convicted of killing his daughter by a fire he purposely set, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the evidence against him deserves a second look.

The 76-year-old man was convicted in 1990 of killing his 20-year-old, mentally-disabled daughter, Ji Yun Lee, in a fire set at a religious retreat in the Poconos. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and has been contending that he was wrongfully convicted ever since.

Now, the Third Circuit has allowed a prominent fire expert to examine the remaining physical evidence to see if the fire was accidental.

Finding that the lower courts' denials of a re-examination of the evidence were improper and infringed on his constitutional right to due process, the three-judge panel stated in its decision that Lee "has a convincing claim of innocence" and satisfied the "good cause standard" enough to warrant an evidentiary hearing and additional discovery.

"If Lee's expert's independent analysis of the fire scene evidence - applying principles from new developments in fire science - shows that the fire expert testimony at Lee's trial was fundamentally unreliable, then Lee will be entitled to federal habeas relief on his due process claim," the panel wrote.

Lee's attorneys have argued that he was convicted by debunked, junk science and that current technological advances in arson investigation will show that the fire was accidental. Criminal appellate practitioners take note: Advances in arson investigation have reportedly had a similar impact on criminal justice as the advent of DNA testing.

The prosecution, on the other hand, claims Lee is only trying to "get another bite at the apple" and is considering an appeal, according to The Morning Call.

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