US suspect on trial after film reopens South Korea murder case

US national Arthur Patterson arriving at Incheon airport on Sept 23, 2015.
US national Arthur Patterson arriving at Incheon airport on Sept 23, 2015. PHOTO: AFP/YONHAP

SEOUL (AFP) - An American man charged with killing a South Korean college student went on trial on Wednesday (Nov 4) after a film based on the two-decade-old murder led to the high-profile case being reopened.

Arthur Patterson, 36, was extradited from the United States in September to face trial in Seoul on charges of murdering Jo Jung-Pil, who was stabbed multiple times with a knife in a fast-food restaurant toilet.

Patterson, who was the 17-year-old son of a US military contractor at the time, has denied his involvement in the crime in the nightlife district of Itaewon, close to the US military base in Seoul.

Patterson's lawyers argued in an opening statement cited by Yonhap news agency that their client was innocent because the charges were based on the wrong translation of a statement he had made earlier.

But Jo's 73-year-old mother, speaking from the witness stand, insisted Patterson should receive "the severest possible punishment", Yonhap reported.

Patterson was initially tried as an accomplice, while Edward Lee, a Korean-American man who was at the scene, was charged with murder. Both accused the other of killing Jo.

Patterson served 18 months in prison for lesser charges including obstruction of justice, while Lee was sentenced to 20 years in jail for murder.

In 1998, Patterson was released as part of an amnesty, only to find himself a murder suspect again after Lee was acquitted on appeal for lack of evidence.

"They are pointing the finger at each other, claiming the other is the culprit," Jo's mother was quoted as saying, criticising both for acting like "animals masked as human beings".

Patterson fled to the United States a year later after investigators failed to renew his travel ban - a mistake that sparked a storm of criticism.

More than 28,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea and crimes connected with them are considered a sensitive issue.

The murder was made into a hit movie in 2009, refuelling public anger over the crime and forcing South Korean prosecutors to reopen the case.

Patterson was formally charged in absentia with Jo's murder in 2011, and extradition proceedings began.