Koua Fong Lee Freed in MN, Toyota Nightmare Over

Back in March, I wrote Free Koua Fong Lee From His Toyota Camry Nightmare. Mr. Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant, was driving his family home from church in 2006 when his Toyota Camry sped up a ramp and hit another car. Three people died and two were injured. Mr. Lee insisted he did everything he could to avoid the accident and hit the brakes. He was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

While in prison, Toyota revealed the problems with its gas pedals. The Innocence Project of Minnesota took up his case, and the prosecutor agreed to revisit it.

Today, a judge freed Mr. Lee from prison, ordering a new trial. The prosecutor said there isn't going to be one, ""I think it's time to bring this very sad situation to a close." [More...]

The judge who freed Mr. Lee today is the same one who sentenced him to 8 years in prison:

Over four days of testimony this week, Lee's attorneys didn't prove his car had a sudden acceleration problem. But they argued evidence backed up Lee's account he was trying to brake. They also argued his defense attorney did a poor job. And they called a parade of witnesses who testified they had sudden-acceleration experiences in Toyotas similar to Lee's.

The Judge agreed had the Toyota evidence been presented at trial, the result likely would have been different.

Smith said if that testimony from the other Toyota drivers had been introduced at his trial, it would "more likely than not, or probably, or even almost certainly" have resulted in a different verdict for Lee.

The Judge also based her decision on Lee's limited English and his attorney's triai performance:

Smith also said Lee's limited English was a factor in her conclusion, as well as the work of his defense attorney, who suggested to the jury that Lee might have stepped on the accelerator.

"There were multiple errors and omissions by his attorney that necessitate this result," Smith said.

The families of the victims supported Lee's bid for a new trial and "welcomed the judge's ruling."

Leaving court, Lee said he never intended to cause an accident:

I want them to know that I will pray for them and I also want to ask them to forgive me and to believe me," he said.

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    God for Mr. Lee. (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:26:04 PM EST
    The judge seems to feel Mr' Lee's original trial lawyer eff'd up pretty good, should he bear some responsibility for that?

    Wow (none / 0) (#1)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:32:04 PM EST
    How often does that happen, a prosecutor declining to prosecute out of a basic sense of fairness?

    This is terrific news.  I'd heard the judge had ordered a new trial, but not that the prosecutor had announced there wouldn't be another prosecution.

    It was a bizarre prosecution to begin with, IMHO.

    Basic sense of fairness? I don't think so ... (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by cymro on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 02:37:38 AM EST
    If you had been following this case, I doubt if you would have had that reaction.

    The DA, Susan Gaertner, delayed and fought against this every step of the way, right up to offering a ridiculous plea bargain just a few hours before the judge's verdict was announced. After three days of testimony at the evidentiary hearing, when she must have had a good idea of the likely outcome, she offered Lee release from prison, but as a convicted felon, without a drivers license for 10 years, and be put on probation for 15 years. Lee wisely declined this crock.

    Gaertner only gave up on her goal of convicting Lee AFTER Judge Joanne Smith--who also presided at the original trial--stated that if the new evidence presented at this hearing had been presented at that trial, a jury would almost certainly not have returned a guilty verdict.

    So, given that opinion from the Judge, all the new evidence, and the information about Toyota's problems now public, what would be the point of a retrial? I believe Susan Gaertner set Lee free to avoid another highly public failure, and to try to make the best of this one, not out of any basic sense of fairness.


    OK (none / 0) (#7)
    by gyrfalcon on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 08:13:52 AM EST
    Thanks for the education.  Sorry to hear it.

    I don't believe ... (none / 0) (#9)
    by nyrias on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:15:04 PM EST
    all prosecutors are out there to just get their opponents.

    Some are actually interested in the truth.


    Thank you. I have thought of him (none / 0) (#2)
    by Cream City on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:49:23 PM EST
    and his family often, actually, after reading about his story here.  I know so many Hmong, such fine people, and too many have been subjected to such discrimination in my state, too.

    Good for the families of the victims, good for the prosecutor, good for the judge . . . but now I want to read that Toyota pays for the lost eight years.

    cx: Four years lost (none / 0) (#3)
    by Cream City on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:51:03 PM EST
    (too late at night to think and type).  But I bet that the family lost a lot in legal costs, opportunity costs, etc., as well as emotional loss.

    I'd say the State of MN... (none / 0) (#8)
    by kdog on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 11:07:26 AM EST
    owes Mr. Lee for the 4 years of unjust caging CC...if Toyota owes anybody it is the loved ones of the victims of the tragic accident.

    Fatal car accidents are horrible, but rarely criminal, imo...though we seem to be in love with criminalizing anything and everything these days.  


    Agreed, but Toyota's lies (none / 0) (#13)
    by Cream City on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:49:39 PM EST
    for years now really bother me -- and it has deeper pockets, I think, based on tort limit laws or something like that in Minnesota, about which I read.

    It would be good to hit Minnesota somewhat, though, if only to rein in bad prosecutors -- and juries prone to not wanting to believe immigrants, especially if Hmong, Somalians (also sizeable in that state), etc.  That also might send a message across the border to my state.


    Great News (none / 0) (#4)
    by squeaky on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:54:56 PM EST
    Nice to see it reversed. What a great toll it must have been for Koua Fong Lee and his family.

    I wonder if Fong can sue ... (none / 0) (#10)
    by nyrias on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:16:12 PM EST

    Just about anyone can try to sue anyone (none / 0) (#12)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:34:03 PM EST
    for anything. Prevailing in the lawsuit is another question altogether.

    If it can be proven that the accident was caused by Toyota (which has not been done, and is not the reason Mr. Lee was freed) I would think the family of the three deceased would have the biggest claim against Toyota.

    iirc, that is one of the more cynical notions presented as the reason the family of the three deceased seemed so supportive of Mr. Lee's innocence...


    Good news for Mr. Lee. (none / 0) (#5)
    by desertswine on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 12:08:05 AM EST