Ever since that tragic moment in June 2006 when his Toyota Camry rammed into the back of an Oldsmobile and killing three of its occupants, Koua Fong Lee has never backed away from his original story of how he lost control of the ’96 Camry as it unexpectedly shot up an exit ramp, reaching speeds up to 90 MPH.
He told jurors in the 2007 trial, just as he is telling the media now: “I know 100-per cent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible,” he said recently on ABC-News from the confines of the Lino Lakes State Prison, where he is serving an 8-year sentence for that incident.
Family members who were inside the Camry have also testified that while the car was speeding up, Lee had yelled to them that he was stepping on the brakes with no success of slowing the car down.
Even to possibly save himself jail time, Lee refused to take a plea agreement by admitting he may have made a mistake, never compromising from what he firmly believed was the truth.
The jury, the victims’ family, the judge-and even his own attorney at the time– refused to believe his testimony. Rather, they concluded that Lee may have been stepping on the gas pedal rather than the brakes, thus convicting him of two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter.
However, with the new revelations of “unintended acceleration” with some Toyota vehicles vastly publicized over the last few months, many are beginning to look at Lee’s testimony with more openness and plausibility.
Quincy Adams, the lone surviving passenger from that Oldsmobile, told ABC-News that after learning about Toyota’s safety issues, “”In my heart, the way I feel now, it wasn’t his fault. I think he [Koua Fong Lee] should be set free. I do.”
At this point, said the victims’ attorney, Michael Padden, “The family seeks answers as to why three of their beloved died that day, not from Lee, but from Toyota.”
In an interview with ABC News, Bridgett Trice, the mother of Devyn Bolton, one of the three victims, said, “I do think there’s something to it, because we’re finding out that there’s other cases that are similar to what happened with Mr. Lee’s car. There is a terrible wrong done here and there is an innocent man in prison.”
Even some jurors who convicted Lee in 2007 are skeptical of their decision. During interviews with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Juror Danny Buechler of St. Paul says he would like to see Lee get out of prison within three months, adding, “I hope he gets mercy.”
Juror Margaret Race of White Bear Lake told the Pioneer Press she cried after reading a news story about Lee.
Beyond local media covering this story, major national media such as CNN, ABC, and People Magazine has brought this case to new heights. With all this coverage, Lee’s new attorney, Brent Schafer, has been able to garner support from the likes of the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted people.
Altogether, more than a dozen affidavits have been sent in from around the nation from Camry drivers who faced similar acceleration problems. According to Lee family member, Kong Chee Vang, the affidavits that have been received are from a wide range of people, from students to doctors.
“Almost all reports state that the acceleration problem occurred just one time and that after getting the car examined, no mechanical issues could be found,” Vang reported.
And although the recent Toyota recalls do not include the ’96 Camry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database lists 15 reports of sudden acceleration by drivers of 1996 Camrys. According to its website, the NHTSA lists a recall of the 1996 Camry which have been equipped with an aftermarket cruise control which has been linked with “unintended acceleration” which it states, “can increase the potential for a vehicle accident.”
With all this new information, Lee’s attorney has petitioned for a new trial. After meeting with prosecutors, an inspection of the 1996 Camry will take place in late April. Richard Dusek, a national expert retained by Lee’s attorneys, and Wade Bartlett, a mechanical engineer hired by the county attorney’s office , will conduct the inspection. Ramsey County Attorney, Susan Gaertner has also requested the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration participate, and discussion has been raised about whether a representative from Toyota will be at the inspection.
“This is an important step toward gathering the evidence we need to determine whether any defects may have contributed to the crash,” Gaertner told reporters. “We need the facts so we can act accordingly.”
As Lee’s family eagerly awaits the results from that inspection, they are thankful for the widespread support they have received thus far. In addition to the media coverage, there are websites created by attorney Brent Schafer to raise funds for Lee’s legal fees as well as a Facebook group called, “Free Koua Lee” which has over 2,000 members.
“This is a tragic story of lost lives and an innocent man who is in prison,” said Kong Chee Vang, a close relative of Lee’s. “This man has not been able to eat or sleep regularly because of this incident.”
She went on to describe the 2007 trial in which there were many interpretation issues and an environment which may have been tainted by the recent Chai Vang trial in which a Hmong man was found guilty of killing 7 hunters in Wisconsin.
“Koua didn’t go out that day with his pregnant wife and kids in the car looking to kill anybody. He didn’t deserve to go to prison for seven years. The system only created more victims, Koua’s wife and small children.”