Slain man's survivors, supporters protest justice system

September 03, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Kenneth Lee told more than 300 people at a remembrance in Towson for his slain son yesterday that he lost trust in the U.S. justice system when the man charged with killing his son went free.

But several state officials urged him and other Korean-Americans attending the event to keep faith in the nation's courts.

People holding protest signs gathered on Towson State University's campus yesterday afternoon for a wake marking the second anniversary of the slaying of Joel Lee. The gathering was one of several conducted by Korean-American groups in the country using the anniversary as a way of pushing for improved justice for Asians in the United States.

From 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., supporters carried signs calling for a change in America's jury system. Many others just stood or sat silently and listened to pastors and activists talk about judicial hypocrisy.

The 21-year-old Towson student was gunned down exactly two years ago yesterday during a robbery at a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex. His father said yesterday he plans to spend his life working to vindicate his son's death.

"My trust is broken," Mr. Lee said repeatedly in conversations with people at yesterday's demonstration. "The system here is not working. Since my son is killed, someone should be punished."

The jury trial for Davon A. Neverdon, 20, accused of killing Joel Lee, ended in acquittal -- and allegations that racial considerations were in play -- in Baltimore on July 28. Twelve jurors, 11 of them black, heard testimony from three witnesses who said they saw Mr. Neverdon, who is black, shoot Mr. Lee and from a fourth witness who claimed to have hidden the murder weapon.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in comments to the Towson gathering that prosecutors are "disappointed with the verdict," but that the Korean-American community should not give up on American justice. "We can't change the jury system because of one case," Ms. Jessamy said. "It works most of the time."

Federal prosecutors began reviewing the case last month after the Korean-American community called the court decision racially motivated. But a civil rights investigation of the case is difficult to pursue, the prosecutors said.

Shu-Ping Chang, executive director of the state's Asian Pacific American Affairs office, drew some interest from yesterday's solemn crowd when he announced the formation of a state task force to study violence against Asians.

The 15-member task force is scheduled to begin next month and Mr. Lee will be asked to participate. The group would make recommendations to the governor in January 1997, Mr. Chang said.

As the officials made comments, many new Towson State students and their parents passed by, moving furniture into dorms for the new school that begins Tuesday. Some students paused in to listen.

Amid it all, Mark Lee, Joel's 20-year-old brother, kept to himself, cherishing his personal memories.

"It's a good feeling that all these people came and took time out to do something for my brother," he said, looking at flowers beside an apple tree Joel's fraternity brothers planted in his memory.

While the family grieves, Korean church and business groups said they plan to help keep the issue alive. Joel Lee's death affects the entire Korean community and the student has become a martyr of sorts, said Hyung Kim, spokesman for the Korean Society of Maryland.

"This incident is not just a matter for now," Ms. Kim said. "We don't want people to think they can just kill Koreans and walk away."

About 30,000 Koreans live in the Baltimore area and about 2,500 of them own businesses in black sections, she said. Ms. Kim said other Korean groups in cities that include New York, Chicago and Los Angeles held similar protests nationwide yesterday.

On campuses this year, some Korean student leaders will use the Lee case to bring better relations between student groups.

"We feel sad about it," said Mitchell Kim, 23, president of the Korean Student Association at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. "We thought America was the land of justice. It didn't work out that way. We want to do something about it."

The gathering at Towson State achieved more than just tears, singing and protest. It made people question the justice system's character, said Marna McLenden, state's attorney for Howard County, where the Lee family lives. "It brings people together to reflect on due process," she said. "When an injustice happens, what do we do about it?"

Kenneth Lee said he'll "keep on fighting."

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