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Appeal Court Backs Parole for Killer, 82

Times Staff Writer

A California Court of Appeal panel ruled Tuesday that a seriously ailing 82-year-old man who pleaded guilty to murder in 1989 should be freed from prison, setting aside the governor’s decision to deny him parole.

The appellate court judges found that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger abused his authority last year when he reversed a parole board recommendation to release Wen Lee, former owner of a Glendale restaurant.

Lee, who wounded the buyer of his restaurant and killed the man’s wife after opening fire on them at the business 19 years ago, was sentenced in 1989 to spend up to the rest of his life in prison.

In its decision, the appellate panel in Los Angeles said that the parole board found that “every factor supported his suitability for parole.”

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It noted that the board found that Lee posed little or no threat to the public, that he had a spotless discipline record in prison except for one smoking violation and that he is totally disabled and suffering from diabetes, heart problems, partial blindness and other ailments.

Lee’s lawyer, Roger S. Hanson of Santa Ana, called the decision “very gratifying,” and said Schwarzenegger’s blocking of his client’s release was puzzling. “He’s in bad health, and he’s been in a long time,” Hanson said.

However, Lee’s status remained in doubt Tuesday. Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

“The governor makes his decisions based on the merits of each individual case,” she said. “He will review all of the factors in the case to determine what needs to be done.”

The restaurant shooting followed a dispute between Lee and the business’ buyer, Johnny Soong, over payments. Lee went to the restaurant to collect a payment. After Soong spurned him, Lee pulled out his gun and fired five shots. Soong survived after being struck by two bullets, but one shot hit Soong’s wife, Tuai Li-Chun, in the head, killing her. Lee pleaded guilty to attempted premeditated murder of Soong and second-degree murder of his wife.

Schwarzenegger reversed the parole board recommendation to release Lee, arguing that the killing was “atrocious,” and that until recent years, Lee did not accept full responsibility, characterizing the killing as accidental. The appellate court rejected those arguments and emphasized that “the record established that Lee does not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.”

Donald Specter, director of Prison Law Office, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights advocacy group in San Rafael, contended that Schwarzenegger’s posture in the Lee case “leads one to question whether he is actually making a good-faith effort to exercise his discretion to really, truly focus on whether somebody is a danger to society.”

Specter said that Schwarzenegger initially was more willing to side with parole board decisions to grant freedom than his predecessor, Gray Davis, but that his decisions “have become more political.”

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stuart.silverstein@latimes.com


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