Han Tak Lee, now 80, was convicted of setting the fire that killed his mentally ill daughter in 1989

Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

A New York businessman who spent 24 years in prison before a judge threw out his arson-murder conviction is fighting to keep his hard-earned freedom.

Han Tak Lee, now 80, was convicted of setting the fire that killed his mentally ill daughter at a cabin in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania in 1989. But last year, a judge tossed out that conviction, citing faulty science. Lee has long stated that the fire was accidental.

Now, prosecutors hope to get that conviction – and Lee’s life sentence – reinstated, urging the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the judge’s ruling.

But Lee maintains his innocence, telling the Associated Press: “I lost all my dreams.”

“I feel that justice is still alive,” he added. “That’s what I want to make clear.”

Back in 1989, investigators immediately suspected arson when they checked out the burned-out shell of the cabin. They cited various burn patterns as evidence that an accelerant had been used to set the fire, and testimony from experts on the patterns helped put Lee behind bars.

But an independent review of the evidence in 2012 disputed this expert testimony, stating it was based on “little more than superstition.” In 2014, a judge agreed and ordered Lee’s release.

Prosecutors say the discredited testimony amounted to a “harmless error” and have cited what they say is other “overwhelming” evidence – like a pathologist’s opinion that Lee’s daughter might have been strangled.

Oral arguments for the prosecution’s appeal of the release were held in June. Now, the court must issue a ruling.

Lee says he’s not worried about heading back to prison.

“I’m not guilty,” he says, adding, “I love America and I expect America to make the right decision.”

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