After emotional battle, Lee walks a free manby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The St. Paul man who spent two and a half years in prison for a 2006 car crash that killed three people won his freedom in court on Thursday.
A day ago, Koua Fong Lee was wearing an orange jump suit and had 915 more days to spend in prison. Today, he's waking up a free man.
"First thing I'm going to do is to get to know my children," Lee said Thursday after a Ramsey County District Court judge threw out his 2007 conviction. "It's a long time, a very long time, and they don't know me. I want to know them. I also want them to know [what] the word daddy means."
He'd been in prison since January 2008, for a crash that killed three people who were sitting at a red light exit ramp of Interstate 94 and Snelling Avenue. Javis Adams and his 9-year-old son died on the scene. Adams' niece, 7-year-old Devyn Bolton, was left a quadriplegic and died a year later.
Lee said he was trying to stop his car, but that it raced out of control. Experts think he may have hit the back of Adams' Oldsmobile at more than 90 mph.
At his trial, experts said Lee's 1996 Camry was likely in working order before the crash. His own attorney told the jury that Lee was probably pressing the accelerator, rather than the brake. The jury found him guilty of criminal vehicular homicide.
Then, two years after he went to prison, Toyota began recalling millions of cars, including Camrys built starting in 2007. The company admitted some accelerated on their own, much like Lee had described.
Lee's car was 11 years older, but the recall bolstered his story. The Innocence Project of Minnesota and two attorneys took up his case and asked for a new trial.
One of them was Texas-based Bob Hilliard, who has filed suit against Toyota. He said the car maker was at fault, not Lee.
"If we had a chance to retry this case with a full investigation of that vehicle, not just the cursory investigation we did, but a full, detailed investigation, and to bring in the nation's best experts, there is no way a jury could convict him," Hilliard said.
But Ramsey County District Court judge Joanne Smith said she found fault in her own courtroom, as well. She presided over the original trial, and this week's hearing.
Ruling from the bench, Smith agreed with Lee's supporters. They'd argued that his original attorney had botched Lee's defense. They said he'd left out an expert that said a broken tail light bulb showed the brakes had been activated when Lee crashed.
Smith also said attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks should have called trial prosecutors on a mistake they made in examining Lee's car -- they said it didn't have anti-lock brakes, and it did.
Smith also cited testimony of 11 other Camry drivers who said their Toyota Camrys, like Lee's, had surged out of control.
Smith even took some of the blame herself, saying she'd had doubts at the time about the propriety of Lee's defense -- that his attorney was telling a different story to the jury than Lee himself. She told a packed courtroom that she had wondered for years if she should have intervened at the time.
Yesterday, she set Lee free.
Minutes after the ruling, Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner said the case had gone on long enough.
"The state has a right to appeal Judge Smith's order, but we will not be doing so," Gaertner said outside the courthouse. "We will not be filing new charges, or retrying Mr. Lee."
Word reached the jail as Lee walked out, to go home to his wife and four kids.
But Gaertner also defended her office's handling of the case, noting that even her prosecutors had expressed concern in court about Lee's defense as the trial wound down.
"This has been a tragic situation," Gaertner said. "A deadly collision, three lives lost; we defended this verdict because we believed the jury was just in their decision. I have no regrets."
There's still plenty of that -- regret. Javis Adams and Devyn Bolton were Carolyn Trice's grandchildren. The driver killed was her son. Trice watched Lee's families and supporters celebrate yesterday.
"It's still not going to bring back my loss, but I'm glad the innocent got released," Trice said.
Her family is one of the Toyota crash victims that Hilliard -- Lee's attorney -- is representing. Thursday's ruling means the car company won't have Lee's conviction to deflect fault in the crash.
(MPR reporters Annie Baxter and Tom Weber contributed to this report.)
- Morning Edition, 08/06/2010, 8:35 a.m.