At his murder trial this summer, Beong Kwun Cho claimed he was doing his childhood friend a favor when he shot him in the back of his head on the side of a deserted street in Anaheim.
Cho, 57, tearfully testified in his own defense, saying his friend of four decades, Yeon Woo Lee, wanted to commit suicide and had asked him to pull the trigger.
His friend, Cho said, had orchestrated a plot to make his death look like a botched robbery, wanting his family to be free of the social stigma of suicide and for them to receive life insurance payouts.
Jurors weighing his fate appeared to accept his account, sparing Cho of a murder charge and instead finding him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he had thought long and hard about the “extraordinary” case before deciding what price Cho should pay for that alleged favor: 10 years in prison.
“The reality is ... only two people were out on that dark road in Anaheim Hills that night, and only one of them is here to tell what happened,” the judge said. But evidence in the case, he said, “painted a compelling picture that perhaps this was not a first-degree murder.”
Goethals handed down the sentence after an emotional victim impact statement from Lee’s daughter, Jumi Lee, who asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence of 21 years. Cho, she said, was maligning her father after murdering him, and her family was fearful of Cho returning to South Korea after completing his sentence.
Dressed in black, Lee said her father was a man with “a positive and strong mind” who came to the U.S. to seek out business opportunities so that her family might immigrate to California.
“But he came back home as cold ashes,” said Lee, who traveled from South Korea to give her statement.
That the killer was her father’s longtime friend, she said, added “a feeling of severe betrayal” on top of her family’s loss. Cho’s claims about her father being suicidal and manipulative, Lee told the judge, “are worsening the wound which is still wide open.”
Cho, speaking after Lee, wept as he sought forgiveness.
“If I could give my life to apologize I would,” he said, telling the judge, “I will humbly accept any punishment, whether it’s 21 years or the death penalty.”
Lee, a South Korean national, was found dead in early 2011 lying next to his rental car with a flat tire and jack, a gunshot wound to the back of his head and an oversize footprint on his back. Cho told police, and later jurors, that it was his friend who procured the gun, purchased size 13 shoes and punctured the tire to stage the scene of his death.
Cho’s attorney, deputy public defender Robert Kohler, wrote in sentencing papers that Cho’s account was supported by “overwhelming” evidence presented at trial: surveillance footage at a gas station where the men met up and the Wal-Mart where Lee bought the shoes; Lee’s DNA, not blood, on the barrel of the gun indicating he himself had handled the firearm; testimony from a third friend who said Lee had a domineering personality and had wielded outsize influence over Cho for decades.
Lee, Kohler contended, “manipulated and coerced” his longtime friend into going along with his plan, going as far as sexually assaulting Cho’s wife to motivate him to go through with it. In his testimony, Cho said he thought his friend would eventually abandon the plan, and only fired the gun in the heat of the moment when Lee made insulting remarks about his wife and daughter, referencing the assault.
“He did not care anything at all about the world he was leaving behind or who he hurt in his wake,” the attorney wrote. "This incident would never have happened had it not been for Mr. Lee’s desire to commit suicide."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Simmons said Friday that Cho made a deliberate choice to kill his friend, execution-style. He “got a a huge break” in the jury’s manslaughter verdict, the prosecutor said.
"Mr. Cho made a decision that night. Mr. Cho could have walked away and Mr. Lee would still be alive,” Simmons said.
At trial, the prosecutor argued to jurors that even if Lee was suicidal, Cho was guilty of premeditated murder. The steps he took — putting on black gloves, making the muddy shoe print on Lee’s back and pulling the trigger of the Smith & Wesson — made it so, Simmons contended.
Goethals said he was sympathetic to Lee’s family’s pain, but said based on evidence presented at trial, the jury’s verdict was fair.
The judge said he’d mulled over the case for weeks, weighing, among other things, how to factor in what he called a “cultural defense” from Cho’s attorney. A sociology professor testified for the defense about the shame and stigma attached to suicide and sexual assault in Korean society.
“It’s hard to imagine a person born and raised in American culture convincing a jury this was a voluntary manslaughter,” he said. “When immigrants come to the United States … ultimately they have to adhere to the laws of the United States and the state of California.”
In the end, Goethals said the mitigating and aggravating circumstances in the case were about evenly balanced, and said he elected to sentence Cho to the mid-range prison term for voluntary manslaughter including an enhancement for using a firearm. Cho will receive six and a half years of credits, for time served and other adjustments.
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6:35 p.m.: This article was updated with further details.
This article was originally published at 11:55 a.m.
This story was updated to add details.