Convicted Killer Cleared After Serving 20 Years in Prison

At least three men are exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit after spending up to two decades behind bars. And that’s just this week.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
December 18, 2020, 5:08am
Killer Rape Murder Crime Death Penalty Lee Chun-jae Yoon Sung-yeo
THE ANSAN BRANCH OF THE SUWON DISTRICT COURT IN SOUTH KOREA. Photo: ED JONES / AFP

A South Korean man who was imprisoned for 20 years for rape and murder was cleared of his charge on Thursday.

In a retrial of the 1988 murder case of a teenage girl, the Suwon District Court overturned the original conviction of Yoon Sung-yeo and declared him not guilty.

Wrongful convictions are rare but hardly unknown, in South Korea or globally, and are commonly cited as an argument against the death penalty

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On the same day Yoon cleared his name, a court in the Chinese city of Tianjin overturned the murder conviction of a man who had spent 17 years in prison. The day before, a Black man in Philadelphia was exonerated and freed after being held behind bars for 19 years.

Yoon was accused in 1989 of raping and murdering a 13-year-old middle school girl in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, and sentenced to life next year.

He appealed to the higher courts in 1990, claiming he was sleeping when the killing allegedly took place and was forced to confess to the crime under torture by government investigators. The courts rejected his appeals.

The sentence of the 53-year-old man, who was then in his early 20s, was commuted to 20 years in prison in 2000. He was released on parole in 2009 after 20 years’ incarceration. 

The turning point came last year when another man, Lee Chun-jae, confessed to killing 14 women across South Korea between 1986 and 1991, including the teenager Yoon was wrongfully accused of murdering. Lee was serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law in 1994 when he confessed to the serial murder.

Following 57-year-old Lee’s confession, Yoon filed for a retrial, which took place this year.

“Lee’s confession is very specific and objective. It accords with evidence such as the crime scene and the state of the victim’s corpse,” a judge the Suwon court said on Thursday. Yoon’s confession 31 years ago, the judge said, “conflicts with evidence.”

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Overturning Yoon’s conviction, the court apologized to him, saying that he “suffered a great deal of pain physically and mentally due to the errors.”

“We sincerely hope that the retrial of the case will be a little consoling and contribute to the restoration of the accused’s honor,” the judge said.

Lee, the serial killer, has also apologized to Yoon. “I hope everything return to what it was and wish him a healthier and happier life,” Lee said in a hearing last month.

The Korean National Police Agency said it “bow our head deeply in apology” for Yoon and his family.

Last month, Yoon appeared in “Eye Contact”, a South Korean television show where people share their personal stories. He said there’s one thing that he would really like to ask Lee.

“Why did you do that?”

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