Advances in Science a Factor in Pennsylvania Arson Case


Advances in Science a Factor in Pennsylvania Arson Case

Nearly 25 years after a Pennsylvania man was convicted of setting a fire in a small cabin at a Korean Christian retreat that claimed the life of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter, advances in arson science could soon lead to his release. Han Tak Lee, 79 years old, is serving a life sentence. He was convicted of murder based on outdated indicators of arson.


In the years since Lee’s conviction, what were once considered tell-tale signs of arson have been debunked based on a lack of credible science to support them. The

Philadelphia Inquirer

reported that Lee won his most significant legal victory last month when a federal magistrate judge in Harrisburg recommended that he be retried or released. A U.S. district court judge is reviewing that recommendation and could rule soon.


According to Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the

Pennsylvania Innocence Project

, Lee is among a handful of Pennsylvania inmates —

including Daniel Dougherty of Northeast Philadelphia

— seeking freedom in an arson case.


“It’s plausible to think he could get out soon,” said lawyer Peter Goldberger, who has represented Lee for 14 years, according to the




Last week, the prosecution filed objections to the magistrate’s report, but on Friday, Goldberger called those objections “insubstantial” and filed a motion for bail.


During Lee’s trial, fire investigators and police analysis said there were burn patterns in the cabin that indicated several points where the fire started, with one investigator even saying traces of a flammable liquid were found on Lee’s clothing which matched remnants found on a glove and jug at the scene.




reported that John Lentini, a fire science expert who reviewed evidence in the high-profile Cameron Todd Willingham case, wrote an article in 1999 that said Lee’s conviction was the “ultimate triumph of junk science” and argued that the fire was mistakenly categorized as arson. Lentini disagreed with the assertion that more than 60 gallons of fuel oil and gas had been used to start the fire, because no trace of either was ever found in the cabin.


More than a decade after Lentini published that article, Goldberger called on him to help with Lee’s appeal. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded, in a precedent-setting decision, that Goldberger had presented a “convincing claim of innocence” on Lee’s behalf and that Lee deserved a chance to challenge the conviction based on the evolving science. Lentini analyzed the evidence and concluded that the clothing did not contain the same mix of oil and gas that was alleged by the prosecution at trial.


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