Not-guilty after 22 years … when will the judiciary apologize?

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of a web-posting appeared in <SBS> on Feb. 16, 2014, expressing reporters personal recollections and mixed feelings about innocence verdict on Ki-Hoon Kang suicide note ghostwriting case in 1992, whopping 22 years ago. At that time, Korean people’s desire to achieve political democracy against succession of despotic regimes was reaching almost the boiling point. Protests were everywhere and the authority was as desperate as ever to quell down such people’s activity by any means. In due course, Kyoung-Dae Kang, a college student aged 19, was beaten to death by police group assault while participating in an anti-government protest. This was like pouring gas on the flame. Assemblies and demonstrations spread nation-wide and many young people, out of anger against ruthless authority and protest, exercised self-immolation. Under this grave circumstance, Ki-Seol Kim, National Alliance for People and Democracy Social Department Chief, also set himself on fire at the rooftop of a 5-storey college building and jumped from it to death. His 2-page suicide note was found at the building rooftop. However, alleging that the handwriting of the suicide note was similar to that of Ki-Seol Kim’s close friend Ki-Hoon Kang, the prosecution charged Kang for fretting on a suicide, joining enemy-benefitting organizations and possession of enemy-benefitting materials. He was finally found guilty of all charges at the supreme court in 1992. He completed his 3-year imprisonment without parole. In 2007, through reinvestigation of all evidences and legal proceedings, Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended retrial of Kang’s case. Supreme court finally decided the retrial of Kang’s case in 2012 and Seoul high court sentenced not guilty to Kang on Feb. 13, 2014. All rights regarding this post stay with the author(s) of the original article or with <SBS> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. In the post, I tried to match the English translation of names of people / institution(s) / position(s) to authentic one(s) as much as possible but, unfortunately, some of them still can be different. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link above.

‘Ki-Hoon Kang suicide note ghostwriting case’ old reporter’s memory and excuse

By Seok-Tae Shim SBS 심석태 기자

Mr. Ki-Hoon Kang was exonerated from his former ’suicide note ghostwriting case’ after a long overdue retrial. I was away on Thursday, the ruling day, afternoon but thought about the case all the time on a passenger train. This is really an old time story, one that I pulled out of my past reporting memory.

This was my first case that I came across as a rookie reporter of the legal case team in 1991. When I was assigned to the team, this case was already on trial. I still remember my senior legal case team leader Kyoung-ryul Shin speaking passionately that this was really an incomprehensible case and let us get to the bottom of it together. I still remember several snapshots of my memory where, with Mr. Shin, I was wandering around for fact research. I also remember one day when we got empty handed and took a break on a bank by the Han-river near Jeol-doo Mt though I don’t remember whom we tried to meet that day and ask what. I was literally a just-recruited rookie reporter and Mr. Shin, the leader of legal case team in a newly established broadcasting firm SBS, also had been a news reporter just for 6 or 7 years then. It was indeed an hazy old time story. In retrospect, Mr. Kang has lived as an abetter of a suicide who ghostwrote the suicide note for such a long time.

Mr. Ki-Hoon Kang in the grand courtroom of Seoul Regional Criminal Court was a quiet person. His lawyers then also expressed their sense of frustration to Mr. Kang for not revolting strongly enough against the prosecutors’ arguments in the courtroom. If they were in his position, they said, they would have yelled and jumped up and down in anger in the courtroom themselves. Well .. it might all be up to the person, I guess.

Anyhow, Mr. Kang was sentenced guilty on the bare sight of all thinking ‘no way, no way.’ The presiding judge of the 1st trial was Won-wook Roh, chief judge of Seoul regional criminal court consultation bench 25. According to old record, Mr. Kang was known to speak out to the judge “Shame on you!” after the verdict but, frankly, I don’t remember. Probably I was on my way up to the 12th floor press room for reporting the sentence as fast as I could. December 20, 1991, the 1st trial sentencing day, was just the second day of TV broadcasting in SBS. Until that day, SBS was radio-only broadcasting firm.

But, then, just after a few days, Hyoung-Kyoung Kim, the head of National Forensic Service Document Analysis Team, who examined the suicide note handwriting, the most critical evidence in the guilty verdict against Mr. Kang, was detained for providing a bogus assessment for money in a different case. Many expected that the guilty verdict against Mr. Kang would be overturned in the appeal court. But, in April 1992, Seoul high court upheld the guilty verdict alleging that the two cases were different. The presiding judge at that time was Dae-hwa Lim, chief judge of Seoul high court criminal bench 2.

I still think this high court sentence was more decisive than the ruling in the 1st trial that had taken place in the chaotic political circumstance in the aftermath of Mr. Ki-Seol Kim’s suicide. In July 1992, several months later, supreme court finalized the guilty verdict against Mr. Kang. Presiding judge then was the supreme court judge Man-Ho Park.

Prosecutors who investigated and maintained the legal proceedings of this case kept on rolling afterwards. Then chief prosecutor Shin-Wook Kang later became a supreme court judge taking the share allotted to the prosecution. Sang-Kyoo Shin reached the director of a high prosecutors’ office, Ki-Choon Nam reached the director of a prosecutors’ office. They still work as attorneys now. The one who still works in public post among those in the chain of command at that time is ironically Ki-Choon Kim, current chief presidential secretary. He was the minister of law, the top commanding officer among all in the chain of command, at that time. I still remember former chief prosecutor Sang-Kyoo Shin’s high pitched voice in the courtroom.

Most reporters forgot the case afterwards. I was like that too. Time to time, I heard rumors of Mr. Kang but all I did was simply recollecting several memories of then courtroom. Mr. Kang completed the full sentence period 3 years without parole and faded away from my attention. Then, I overheard of news on his retrial, his struggle with gastric cancer, and his fret over delayed decision on the retrial of his case in the Supreme Court despite his grave illness. I was simply grateful for those who relayed his news during that period without losing sights on him.

Mdm president Geun-Hye Park who mentioned about ‘fraud within sporting sphere’ after Hyun-Soo Ahn’s naturalization to Russia scandal and then about ‘forced slavery in salt farms’ issue the next day while being debriefed on social security area does not say anything on this innocence verdict on suicide note ghostwriting case which devastated a person’s whole life and inflicted tremendous torment to his families and acquaintances. Even considering that then minister of law is his chief secretary now, would it have been right to express regret and sorry for a person who suffered unspeakably owing to authority’s wrongdoing in a democratic society? It is heard that the prosecution is considering reappeal the ruling, so it is highly likely that this case will go all the way up to the supreme court for the third time including the retrial decision. It makes me feel like that it might rather be much better that way. It could be the sure way of concluding the whole case historically right that the supreme court who finalised his guilty verdict then exonerates him for the last time.

Seoul high court that handled the retrial sentenced innocent but it did not express any regrets to Mr. Kang. Trials are human matter and justice can be miscarried of course. That’s why a crime should be tried three times and, in case it turned out to be a miscarriage, it should be retried. But, if the original guilty verdict turns into an innocence verdict and that is not because the defendant did something to intentionally distort the truth like making a false confession, then it is appropriate for the judicial system of a free democratic nation to apologise to the person who had to be in prison for 3 years without reason and have had to suffer in the shadow of wrongful accusation since then. I want to think that apologies from then prosecutors and judges, and the prosecution and judiciary are put on hold briefly until the finalisation of the innocence verdict.

Besides the prosecution and the court, I don’t know what Mr. Kang would think of the press. He might not have any expectation at all from the start anyway. It also occurs to me that he may not be bothered by the attention media pour on his innocence verdict over the retrial. It might not matter how I, just a reporter out of so numerous, think of this case. But, he may not know how much comfort and console I get from the turn of events that a case I had to watch so powerlessly at the start of my reporter career is close to conclude in a happy ending eventually. In case my colleagues, especially my junior reporters, see this note, I want to express my shameless aspiration that they would share more of affection and responsibility to current or forth-coming cases and try harder to get to the bottom of them.

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