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[Herald Interview] ‘Still traumatized’: 1980s murder convict on trying to clear name

His hopes of exoneration remained bleak for past three decades -- until another man confessed two months ago

CHEONGJU, North Chungcheong Province – He was 22 years old when the police came for him.

Now 53, after spending 19 1/2 years in prison for the rape and murder of a child and another 10 years as paroled ex-con, he is to undergo a retrial to clear his name in one of Korea’s most notorious crimes.

At a home for ex-prisoners in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, the man, who asked to be identified only by his surname Yun, told The Korea Herald on Saturday that police brutality had forced him to give a false confession 30 years ago. 

He said he remembers being deprived of sleep for about three days, asked to do jump squats despite his weak leg, and told he would be “given a death penalty if he refused to admit his guilt.” 

That confession led to his conviction in 1989 for a killing believed to be a copycat of the Hwaseong serial murders. The victim was a 13-year-old girl, who was raped and strangled to death in her room overnight on Sept. 16, 1988, in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province.

The serial killer case remained unsolved, and Yun’s situation seemed hopeless, until Oct. 4, when convicted rapist-killer Lee Chun-jae was identified as the man likely to have committed the murders.

Soon after he made a stunning confession: that he was responsible for the crime for which Yun was convicted.

Yun speaks to The Korea Herald Saturday at a home for ex-prisoners in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Yun speaks to The Korea Herald Saturday at a home for ex-prisoners in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Yun said he was visited by police in October about reopening his case.

“At first, I avoided them because I am still traumatized from my experience with police from 30 years ago, even though I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

“Three officers from (the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency) showed up at my house one day and told me they were revisiting the case because of some suspected inconsistencies.”

Besides Lee’s confession, there are several aspects of the case that Yun says should cast doubt on his conviction.

While police records show the offender had climbed over a wall, Yun, who contracted polio at age 3 and limps on his left leg, said he could not have done it. He also denied remembering ever going over the wall during the crime reenactment.

“The walls were fragile, you see, and would have fallen over if you attempted to climb them,” he said.

In an October interview with a profiler, Lee denied the scenario presented by police and testified he had entered the house through the gate.

The cold case team at Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency said on Nov. 15 they concluded that Lee’s testimony “bore more credibility” than Yun’s after a review of existing records and questioning Lee about a dozen times.

Asked about his feelings about Lee, Yun said he was grateful, more than anything, for “coming forward and speaking the truth.”

“I will never forget the day Lee made the confession,” he said. “Because without it, I would never have dreamt of the chance at getting a new trial.”

Yun said he heard from police that Lee said he was “sorry” for what had happened, and that he would “appear at court as a witness” to prove his innocence. The confession, which may help Yun prove his claimed innocence, will not hold Lee accountable for any added charges due to expired statute of limitations.

After news of the fresh confession broke, Yun said one prison officer whom he had met as inmate and became friends with linked him to Park Joon-young, a celebrated lawyer who specializes in dealing with miscarriages of justice.

“A lot of people ask me why I did not seek exoneration all this time,” he said. “The reason is simple: I did not have the money to pay for a lawyer and so many people told me I did not stand a chance.”

“At first, I think I was weary (Lee’s confessions) would change anything. But (Park) told me it was a one in a million kind of opportunity that a suspect is rediscovered, let alone admits the guilt,” he said. 

Yun photographed before filing a request for retrial Nov. 13 at Suwon District Court in Gyeonggi Province with his team of three lawyers (left). (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Yun photographed before filing a request for retrial Nov. 13 at Suwon District Court in Gyeonggi Province with his team of three lawyers (left). (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Yun and his team filed a request for a retrial at Suwon District Court in Gyeonggi Province on Nov. 13.

During a press briefing held that day, Park said he would “not have taken Yun’s case had it not been for Lee’s confession,” which he said, “changes everything.”

Yun acceded to the renewed investigation and responded to police interviews three times, each lasting about seven to eight hours.

He said he couldn’t remember a lot of the details not only because a long time had passed since but also due to trauma from the police investigations that led to his conviction.

“I may not be a smart man, but I have good memory,” he said, adding he believes “the trauma effects seem to be messing with” his ability to recall.

Yun said if he ever has the chance to speak with the police officers who inflicted brutality to elicit a false admission out of him, he wants to ask them why they did it.

“I was orphaned at a young age, and had to make a living for myself since I was 13. I also have a limp. I think I was framed because I’m not well off and I didn’t have anyone looking after me.”

He said if he wins the settlement case against the state, he will use the money to help people like him – who are falsely accused and disabled.

Yun said two things he most wants in life are restoration of his honor and public apology from those who wronged him.

The highly publicized nature of his case warranted a formal public apology, he said, stressing he was “not interested in a private apology nor seeking punishment against those responsible.”

He said he wished the then-investigators would own up to what they had done, pointing out that they would not face punishment as statute of limitations on all possible charges had passed.

“I just want the truth to be officially acknowledged -- that I am innocent -- so I will no longer be ashamed to see my family.”

By Kim Arin (