Pictured above: Lee pleads for his innocence (Photo credit: Baenen/AP)
On the afternoon of June 10, 2006 in St. Paul, MN, Koua Fong Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant aged 32, was driving his family home from church. Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry approached an interstate ramp right behind an Oldsmobile, carrying Javis Adams, 33, his 10-year-old son, Javis Jr., and 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton. Adams’ Oldsmobile was stopped at a red light when Lee’s Camry rammed into it from behind at a speed of 70 to 90 miles per hour. Adams and his son died instantly, while Bolton was paralyzed from the neck down and succumbed to her injuries a year-and-a-half later.
At the trial, Lee insisted that he had tried as hard as he could to stop his vehicle, while prosecutor Phil Carruthers argued that “Lee must have hit the gas by mistake” and even Lee’s attorney at the time, Tracy Elchorn-Hicks, took the compromising approach of “Lee’s actions fell short of gross negligence.” While testifying, a grief-stricken Bridget Trice, Bolton’s mother, expressed her sentiments: ”I hope you understand what you’ve done to my family, Mr. Lee. You have ruined it.” Meanwhile, Lee continued to hope that the victims’ families would understand that he had never meant for any of this to happen and had done all that he could to prevent this tragedy.
In a 2007 decision reached by Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith, Lee was convicted on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide and sent to prison for the maximum 8 years despite his pleas of innocence. In an interview, Lee gave the following statement:
I know 100 percent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible. When the brakes were looked at and we were told that nothing was wrong with the brakes, I was shocked.
In prison, Lee worried for his wife who had no one to help her out and his children of ages 8, 5, 3, and 2 who would consistently ask him when he was going to come home.
At last, Toyota admitted that its vehicles had a sudden-acceleration problem that it had underestimated. While Lee’s Camry was not one of the models recalled, this revelation did introduce a new light to his case.
The Innocence Project of Minnesota decided to go to bat for Lee. Managing attorney Julie Jonas confirmed the organization’s involvement in the case and pitched in to help him get a new trial. When Lee’s new criminal defense attorney, Brent Schafer, began to be contacted by a number of Toyota drivers, including owners of the Camry model, raising the sudden-acceleration complaint against the automobile manufacturer, Jonas and a University of Minnesota Law School student began to contact the affected drivers, compiling their testimonies into affidavits. Finally, they were able to convince the prosecutor to “revisit” Lee’s case.
This past week, Lee’s attorneys worked to turn the tide in Lee’s favor through evidence supporting his testimonial that he had tried to put on the brakes. In addition, they insisted that Lee’s earlier attorney had done “a poor job” of representing him. They finished their arguments off by presenting a “parade of witnesses” who had had similar sudden-acceleration issues with their Toyotas.
District Judge Smith stated that, had those drivers’ testimonies been presented at Lee’s trial, the result of the trial would have “more likely than not, or probably, or even most certainly” have brought a “different verdict for Lee.” She continued that Lee’s limited English and “multiple errors and omissions” in the case made by his earlier attorney who even gave the jury the notion that he may have pressed the accelerator were among the factors that had decided the case against Lee.
The prosecution decided to drop the charges against Lee and to not send the case to re-trial due to the lack of “compelling new evidence” and the “ineffective counsel” with the following statement made by county attorney Susan Gaertner: ”I think it’s time to bring this very sad situation to a close.”
Despite his innocence, Lee had spent two-and-a-half years in prison before he was finally freed.
(Photo credit: AP Photo/Pioneer Press, Ben Garvin)