Manhattan DA’s First Restorative Justice Sentencing Helps Victim’s Family Find Peace
On December 5th, 2019, Michael Lee, 52, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a robbery that resulted in the unintended death of Dr. Young Kun Kim, 87, a beloved Lehman College professor. What followed was an unusual scene: the victim’s family took the hand of the perpetrator’s sister, and they walked across the courtroom together.
The moment capped a journey that began on Mother’s Day, May 13th, 2018, when Dr. Kim went to a Citibank ATM on the Upper West Side to withdraw $300. Matthew Lee, a security guard who had fallen on hard times, made the worst decision of his life—he went for the money, pushed Dr. Kim to the ground, and fled.
When the professor’s son, Jinsoo Kim, got a call from his father’s phone number, he knew something horrible had happened. A doctor was on the line: Kim’s father was in a coma with a head injury and Kim had five minutes to decide upon emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. It would prove one of the few choices Kim would be afforded on an unexpected foray into the criminal justice system. The second choice came the following year, when he was offered the opportunity to meet the man who took his father’s life.
Assistant DA Dafna Yoran of the Manhattan DA’s office was assigned to prosecute Lee, and saw an opportunity for a transformative outcome. In 2020, the District Attorney’s office will introduce restorative justice as a component of sentences for individuals convicted of violent crimes in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Lee could agree to participate in an in-person restorative justice circle with the victim’s family. In return, he would be charged with manslaughter instead of felony murder, which carries 25 years to life. Both parties would have to consent to the deal.
“The decision was not immediate,” Jinsoo Kim told Gothamist. But he was a new father. “We were raising a sweet, joyful innocent daughter, and anger had no place in any of that.”
Kim also knew what his father would want – a man devoted to teaching the value of human rights and compassion, who planned to write a book “about the small happinesses in life, and how they are important, yet often overlooked,” he said.
Kim and his wife Julia agreed to the meeting and spent an hour and a half with the defendant and his sister, as well as a social worker.
“It was not just to show mercy toward Mr. Lee. I think it was very therapeutic for me as well. Because I was bringing that hatred around everywhere I went. I tried my best to compartmentalize it, put it in a box,” Jinsoo Kim said.
Julia Kim added that the meeting helped both sides to fill in a lot of blanks. The Kims learned that Lee had learning disabilities, lost his parents several years earlier, and couldn’t make his rent after paying medical bills. The Kims felt for Lee’s sister, who would lose her brother to incarceration. Lee repeatedly expressed his remorse.
The Kims said they found empowerment in seeing the man face to face, hearing words without filters. While they would have the chance to give a statement at sentencing, the courtroom layout posed limitations.
“It is important to realize that when a crime like this occurs…this is a very intimate thing that he did to us,” Julia Kim said. “He killed our father. To have the resolution of that be staring at his back and not seeing his face—something is very wrong about that.”
It was critical that they had a moment to recognize their shared humanity, Julia Kim said. “This is an honored way of moving forward in your life.”
Lee entered the courtroom in handcuffs, feet shackled. He smiled at his sister, in turn she gently waved.
Assistant District Attorney Dafna Yoran stated the facts but did not need to convince the judge. The hard work was already done. This day was about creating space for the voices of those most gravely impacted.
“Letting go of anger does not guarantee that the hurt will go away,” Jinsoo said at the microphone. “I am still sad that my daughter will never meet my father. I’m sad that I never got to hear my dad’s voice one last time. I’m sad that he never got to write his book. I’m also sad that we live in a world where too many people have to choose between paying for their healthcare, their housing, and their food.”
Judge Laura A. Ward wished Lee the best on the long road before him, and reminded him that he had a sister who would support him when he got out.
“I really do wish that I had the opportunity to meet your father,” Judge Ward turned to the Kims. “Because, I would like to know about small happinesses, and I now look at the sunrises and sunsets very differently. So he has created a legacy that I also will pass on.”