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Old US arson-murder rap tossed, man freed after serving 24 years

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania--A South Korean-born man whose arson-murder conviction was overturned in the death of his daughter was freed from prison Friday after 24 years, following a judge's ruling that the case against him was based on now-debunked arson science.

Han-tak Lee, 79, walked out of a federal courthouse in Harrisburg after a judge released him on unsecured bond and restricted his travel to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“I'm finally free,” Lee told reporters and supporters afterward, in comments translated by an interpreter. “It is difficult to think (of) all the past 25 years ... of my life, even though I was innocent.”

He thanked his legal team and supporters, saying he owed them “debts that cannot be repaid except by making the most of my renewed life.”

His attorney, Peter Goldberger, said Lee's first stop would be a medical and psychological checkup. He predicted Lee's adjustment to life outside prison will be challenging.

“He needs to gather himself and calm down and think and understand this change in his life,” Goldberger said.

U.S. District Judge William Nealon threw out Lee's state conviction and sentence of life without parole this month and gave prosecutors 120 days to decide whether they want to retry him in the 1989 death of his daughter, 20-year-old Ji-yun Lee.

Prosecutors have conceded the arson science used to convict Lee was faulty but insist that other evidence points to his guilt. A county prosecutor plans to seek a review, suggesting it may ask a federal appeals court to overturn the decision to release Lee.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson turned down Lee's request to thank him at the end of the bail hearing. “We are simply doing that which we are required to do,” Carlson said.

Carlson said Lee cannot have a guns or a passport and must report any change of address or phone to court authorities.

Though he has spent nearly a third of his life behind bars, Lee — a native of South Korea who became a U.S. citizen about 30 years ago — has never expressed bitterness toward his adopted country and has no plans to return to South Korea, Goldberger said.

Lee is expected to live in an apartment for senior citizens in the Queens section of New York City, where he formerly lived and owned a clothing store.

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Han-tak Lee, 79, leaves the federal courthouse with assistance from friends and supporters a couple hours after his release from a Pennsylvania prison, in Harrisburg on Friday, ...

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