A man who was wrongly accused of murder and rape, arrested and spent 20 years in prison has insisted that he wants his honour back.
The South Korean man, whose name was simply given as Yoon, was accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl in her bed – the eight murder and rape in a row.
A year later, aged just 22, he was invited by the police and, unable to give convincing accounts of his whereabouts over a three-day interrogation, was thrown in jail, where he bagged a life sentence, spent 20 years in prison, before he was released on parole.
Yoon told police that on the night of the murder, he had gone for a walk to get some air, according to records of his confession obtained from his attorney. During the walk, he had to stop several times to rest — his childhood polio had left him with a limp so bad that he had been exempted from compulsory military service. Around midnight, Yoon saw a house with a light on and felt a sudden “urge for rape,” he told police, according to transcripts of his confession. He climbed into the house and attacked the young girl, although he told police he knew the parents were asleep next door.
Afterward, he burned his clothes and went home, according to the confessions.
It is 2020 and Yoon says he did not do it.
“Those times were much like a nightmare,” he said. “When you don’t get sleep for three days, you don’t know what you said. You don’t remember what you did. You can’t think properly.
“You just go along with their questions, on and on.”
Nowadays, Yoon thinks that he was mistreated, but at the time, Yoon didn’t know anything about law — he hadn’t even finished elementary school.
Yoon is determined to clear his name, and his retrial began this week. That in itself is a rare event in South Korea.
A tiny fraction of applications for retrials are accepted and they generally require new evidence, according to lawyer Heo Yoon, who specializes in providing retrial legal advice.
Park Joon-young, one of Yoon’s attorneys, says that evidence is rarely kept for longer than 20 years except in the most high-profile cases — like Hwaseong.
In Yoon’s case, Lee Chun-jae’s confession will be crucial. It’s possible that the convicted murderer will testify in court before the three judges, who have the power to overturn Yoon’s conviction, Park said.
There’s a good chance he’ll be acquitted. At a pre-retrial hearing in February, the presiding judge verbally apologized for Yoon’s false conviction.
Yet, there are still issues with Yoon’s case. Although Lee’s DNA matches a number of the murders, police have not announced any DNA evidence connecting him with the 13-year-old girl.
Also, pubic hairs found at the scene returned a 40% match with Yoon’s, according to a 1989 report written by an expert at National Forensic Service (NFS).
Those hairs have not been DNA tested — and even if they do ultimately match Yoon’s, his lawyer Park warns it’s possible that a sample taken from Yoon could have been mixed up with evidence taken from the scene of the murder. The court has ordered the NFS to extract DNA from the hair, Park said.
The retrial is expected to take place over a number of months, but if Yoon is found not guilty, he can make a claim for compensation, according to Park.
“From the third killing, the police saw that it was a serious case. It had wide media coverage and local residents were frightened,” said detective Ha, who was one of the leaders of the investigation, in a lengthy interview last year on the South Korean YouTube channel he created to highlight cases he worked on.
By then, police were sure that they were looking for a serial killer, but Ha said they had few clues.
Yoon was the only person ever convicted of any of the 10 murders. Police suspected he carried out a copycat killing — all the other victims had been murdered outside, said Ha, who wasn’t involved in Yoon’s investigation.
The other nine murders went unsolved.
In September 2019, Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police superintendent general Ban Gi-soo, the latest police officer in charge of the investigation, made an explosive announcement. In July, police sent evidence that had been held in their files for 30 years to the National Forensic Service for DNA testing.
The DNA evidence from at least three of the murders matched one man: Lee Chun-jae. Lee is currently in prison serving a life sentence for the 1994 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, according to Daejeon court officials and South Korea’s Justice Ministry. It was huge news in South Korea.
A month later, there was another development. Lee confessed to all 10 of the Hwaseong murders, and four others that police did not provide details on.
He had given a detailed confession, even drawing on a piece of paper to explain the locations of the killings, an official from Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency said.
“It is an important case that had prompted questions all over Korea,” the official said. “The victims and their families had strongly demanded (the truth).”
It was a major breakthrough in one of the country’s most infamous serial killing cases. But it also left authorities in a tricky position.
If Lee murdered all 10 people — including the 13-year-old — then Yoon had spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Lee’s confession alone wasn’t enough to clear Yoon’s name. In the eyes of the law, he was still a convicted murderer.
Last December, Gyeonggi Namu Provincial Police launched a formal probe into the conduct of seven police officers and one prosecutor who worked on the original investigation into the killings, including reviewing allegations of abuse of power during arrests. The results of the investigation haven’t been released yet.
Yoon’s experience wasn’t totally unusual for the time. In the 1980s, it was common for suspected criminals in South Korea to be kept awake for long periods to extract a confession, according to Lee Soo-jung, a forensic psychology professor at Kyonggi University.
And it wasn’t just Yoon who accused police of torture. Kim Chil-joon, an attorney who defended other suspects in the Hwaseong murder case, said many people were abused during the investigation.
One of his clients, also surnamed Kim, was accused of the fourth and fifth killings after a medium in the United States said they had seen him in their dream, he said. Kim was subject to torture and interrogation and in 1995 successfully sued the government for damages.
But Kim took his own life two years later after bouts of depression and PTSD, Kim Chil-joon said.
Last year, chief inspector Ban said police were investigating whether officers abused suspects during the original investigation, revisiting allegations that one man was waterboarded with spicy seafood soup.
But these officers will likely never be charged — the statute of limitations has run out on those allegations, too.
Yoon says nothing can compensate him for the 20 years of life he lost. Even when he was freed from prison 10 years ago, the world had changed so much that initially he wanted to go back in. “It took me around three years to adjust,” he said. “I couldn’t live. My life patterns at the prison didn’t accommodate the new world I was faced with.”
And, now, he waits to exhale.