An 18-month federal probe into one of Baltimore's most racially sensitive homicide cases ended yesterday when prosecutors decided not to pursue a civil rights indictment against an African-American man acquitted of killing Korean-American student Joel J. Lee.
The decision disappointed Lee's father and Asian-American leaders, who were outraged in 1995 when a nearly all-black jury acquitted Davon Neverdon. Neverdon was found not guilty despite testimony from four witnesses who said they saw him shoot Lee in the face during a $20 mugging in Northeast Baltimore.
"Based on my son's case and O. J. Simpson's case, I'd have to say that the jury system is unfair," said the father, Kenneth Lee of Ellicott City, an engineer who moved with his family to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, 24 years ago. "I have begged this country for justice in my son's death and never gotten it."
At the forefront of the civil rights investigation was a claim by Neverdon's uncle, convicted felon Eric Dewitt Dunsen, who told prosecutors that his nephew "hates Koreans" and once admitted to him that he killed Joel Lee, according to documents obtained by The Sun.
Dunsen, at the time awaiting sentencing on a drug charge, claimed in letters to prosecutors and Kenneth Lee that the 21-year-old Towson State University student "was singled out and murdered" because of his Korean nationality.
In exchange for a lesser sentence, Dunsen offered to "wear a wiretap and secretly record a private conversation" with his nephew that would "produce a tape in the words of a killer, telling how he murdered a man, and admitting that he killed him just because he was a Korean," he wrote in one letter.
don] can be given a life sentence federally for violating the rights of your son," Dunsen wrote to Kenneth Lee. "I am talking about his civil right to live. Both the state and federal government are letting [Neverdon] get away with murder."
Neverdon, 22, couldn't be reached for comment yesterday because he is serving a three-year narcotics sentence at Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County.
Federal prosecutors never pursued the wiretap, saying Dunsen's narcotics conviction undermined his credibility and that any confession he obtained would have little standing before a jury. They did not strike a deal with him, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia would not comment yesterday on the Dunsen letters, saying only, "We have completed the investigation, and no charges will be brought."
She called the Lee case "very tragic," but added that federal prosecutors were not able to find evidence that the crime falls under federal civil rights statutes.
"We have limited jurisdiction under the statutes," said Battaglia, who met yesterday with Kenneth Lee and Asian-American leaders in her office. "We investigated for 18 months, and we did not feel we could meet the burden of proof under the civil rights statutes."
A civil rights violation can occur when someone harms another person based on "race, color, religion or national origin," according to the U.S. criminal code.
Shu-Ping Chan, executive director of the Governor's Office on Asian Pacific American Affairs, attended Neverdon's trial in July 1995 and was among those who accompanied Kenneth Lee to meet with Battaglia yesterday.
Chan said that while the Lee case "is very troubling because it sends out a message that crimes can be committed against Asian-American people with impunity," he thought federal prosecutors did their best on the case.
"The evidence was just not there for a civil rights prosecution," he said.
The criminal case had proceeded to trial in Baltimore Circuit Court despite an initial offer by Neverdon's attorney to have his client plead guilty in return for a 40-year sentence. But Lee's parents, shaken by the loss of their oldest son, told a prosecutor to reject the plea agreement and go to trial.
According to court testimony, Neverdon and three friends were walking together on Sept. 2, 1993, when Neverdon broke off and approached Joel Lee in the parking lot at Dutch Village Apartments in the 7000 block of McLean Blvd.
Lee, who was looking for a friend's apartment to borrow a book, was shot just below the right eye because he didn't turn over his wallet fast enough, according to testimony.
Neverdon's three friends and a woman watching from her apartment window testified against Neverdon. Two other men testified that Neverdon admitted to them that he killed Lee; one testified that Neverdon gave him the .25-caliber handgun used in the killing and asked him to dispose of it.
In the weeks after the verdict, 150 people, mostly Korean-Americans, protested outside Circuit Court, asking for reforms in the jury system and blaming racial tensions between blacks and Koreans for the not-guilty finding.
During the deliberations, a juror sent Judge Kenneth L. Johnson a note voicing concern that "race may be playing some part in the deliberations," Johnson said. After the verdict was read, the judge told the jurors, "I hope to God in heaven this was not based upon race."
In August 1995, Kenneth Lee asked federal authorities to investigate the slaying, saying that the civil rights investigation was "my last hope" for justice.
Kenneth Lee's 78-year-old mother lives in Korea. He said he has never told her that Joel was killed. However, yesterday's decision made him decide to tell her, he said.
"I didn't want to give her that kind of pain; her first grandson means a lot to her," Kenneth Lee said, noting that he always has talked about Joel with her as if he were alive. "But the reality is now that I have to tell her the story. I want to relieve my pain."
Pub Date: 1/16/97