South Korean man cleared of killing Hwaseong teenage girl after 20 years in prison for her murder

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Yoon Seong-yeo – now in his 50s – was found not guilty on Thursday following a retrial in northwestern Suwon town for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. years old in 1988 in his room in Hwaseong, then a rural and underdeveloped area. near the country’s capital, Seoul.

The teenager was one of 10 killed in the region between 1986 and 1991 in a high-profile series of deaths known as the Hwaseong murders. Yoon was the only person to have been convicted of the murders. He was sentenced to life in prison and ultimately spent 20 years behind bars for the rape and murder of the 13-year-old.

In a verdict on Thursday, Judge Park Jeong-je found that the police used torture, including sleep deprivation and illegal detention to obtain Yoon’s confession to the 1988 murder.

“As a member of the judiciary, I apologize to the accused, who suffered great physical and mental suffering, for the inability of the tribunal to function properly as the last bastion of human rights” , did he declare. We sincerely hope that the retrial of this case will be a little heartwarming and help restore the honor of the accused. “

The result means that Yoon’s name is finally erased – more than 30 years after the murder. It is also a rare outcome in South Korea, where only a tiny fraction of reconsideration requests are granted, experts say.
“I am relieved that the final decision found me innocent,” Yoon said after the verdict. “I can let go of this heavy load that I have carried for 30 years and rest. ”

Yoon has claimed his innocence for years, but only got a new trial after police broke into the case last year.

In September, police announced that new DNA evidence linked at least some of Hwaseong’s murders to Lee Chun-jae, who has been in prison since 1994 for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. The following month, Lee confessed to the 10 murders and four more that police did not provide details on.

Forced confession

In the months-long retrial, lawyers for Yoon argued that their client – who was an uneducated 22-year-old repairman who was limping from childhood polio when he was arrested – was coerced by the police to confess.

Yoon told CNN he was handcuffed in a room for three days, was not allowed to sleep, and barely ate during the interrogation.

In July, Bae Yong-ju, chief of the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police, admitted that during the initial investigation in 1989, the police assaulted Yoon and forced him to make a false confession.

“We bow our heads and apologize to all victims of Lee Chun-jae’s crimes, families of the victims and victims of police investigations, including Yoon,” Bae said, noting that others had suffered from “ police malpractice ”during the initial investigation into Hwaseong.

According to Lee Soo-jung, professor of forensic psychology at Kyonggi University, it was common in the 1980s for suspected criminals in South Korea to be kept awake for long periods of time to obtain a confession. Sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture.

In an interview with CNN in November, Korean National Police Commissioner General Kim Chang-yong said last year’s police investigation revealed that the police used illegal forcible confinement and police techniques. incorrect survey. He said the decision to reveal past wrongdoing shows the police’s commitment not to make the same mistakes.

“It was a shameful and illegal investigation,” he said. “I think that should never happen again and that’s why we need checks and balances. The police are working hard not to repeat the mistakes of the past. ”

Cold case resolved

For decades, the Hwaseong murders – which were revisited in “Memories of Murder,” a 2003 film by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho – have not been resolved. Lee’s confession may have helped put an end to the families of the victims.

Kim said police profilers interviewed Lee 52 times in nearly seven months before he admitted to all the crimes he had committed. “He didn’t confess easily,” Kim said.

In a notable session in November during the months-long retrial, Lee rose to confess to the murders in front of Yoon. He said he did not know why he was not a suspect during the initial investigation and said he was even questioned by the police at the time of the killings while he was wearing a watch belonging to the one of the victims.

“I didn’t think the crimes would be buried forever,” Lee said. “I came to testify and described the crimes in the hope that (the victims and their families) will find some comfort when the truth is revealed. I will live my life in repentance. ”

What happens next

Yoon can now seek redress for the 20 years he spent unjustly imprisoned. One of Yoon’s attorneys, Park Joon-young, told CNN earlier this year that Yoon could likely expect more than $ 1 million in compensation.

Yoon has previously told CNN that no amount of money can compensate him for the years in prison and the impact on his reputation and family.

Police plan to issue a white paper on the Hwaseong case and the police failures in the initial investigation. Kim said it was “impossible” to imagine such failures happening now.

Justice is unlikely to be done for the families of the Hwaseong victims.

Even though Lee confessed to the murders, he cannot be prosecuted for the Hwaseong cases because the statute of limitations for these murders has expired.

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