SEOUL - In South Korea, complaints about the status of forces agreement existed long before a recent rash of high-profile cases involving U.S. troops, with critics often distorting its role in past cases or making it the target when justice was believed to have been subverted.

Perhaps the most prominent case in which U.S. servicemembers are widely perceived, to have skirted the law came in 2002, when two 13-year-old girls were crushed by a U.S. military vehicle in Uijeongbu.

Two 2nd Infantry Division soldiers were acquitted in the case by a U.S. military court, prompting outrage among activists who said the case should have been tried in South Korean legal system. The SOFA gave U.S. Forces Korea jurisdiction in the case because the incident occurred while the soldiers were on duty.

In recent weeks, activists have vocally - and mistakenly -- blamed the SOFA for keeping police from prosecuting an American believed to be responsible for the 1997 slaying of a 23-year-old university student in the restroom of a Burger King near U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan. The case served as the basis for the popular 2009 movie, "The Case of Itaewon Homicide."

Police charged two Americans in the murder. Eddie Lee, who had no connections to USFK, was sentenced to life in prison for the attack. His sentence was later reduced to 20 years and he was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence after he had served 18 months. Arthur Patterson, the dependent of a USFK contract worker, was charged with possessing a deadly weapon and destroying evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, but was released in early 1998 as part of the annual Aug. 15 Liberation Day amnesty granted by the South Korean government to approximately 2,000 convicts.

Prosecutors at the time promised to pursue harsher charges against Patterson, but he was mistakenly allowed to leave the country. In 2006, a Seoul court ordered the South Korean government to pay the victim's family the equivalent of $34,000 for mistakes made in handling the case.

Senior USFK legal officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, recently said Patterson, who no longer falls under the purview of the SOFA, was made available for all legal proceedings when he was in South Korea. The issue now is a matter between the U.S. and South Korean justice ministries, they said.

"They (South Korean prosecutors) just decided to bring more charges years later," one of the officials said. A South Korean prosecutor with the Seoul Central District Court also said Patterson left the country legally, and the SOFA caused no problems during his case.

"USFK very actively cooperated in his case," he said.

South Korean prosecutors now hope to extradite Patterson before the 15-year statute of limitations runs out next year.

Stars and Stripes reporter, Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now