Tuesday, August 10, 2010
CNN) -- A Minnesota man is grateful for his newfound freedom after three years in prison for a fatal car crash he says wasn't his fault. But Koua Fong Lee said on CNN's "American Morning" on Monday that he can't forget the tragic repercussions of the 2006 incident, which he says was caused by faulty Toyota brakes.
"Today, I'm free now. So, I feel really good to reunion with my family and to be with my family, but it's still in my mind this accident's cost to life. And even through I'm returned to my family, I'm free, but three people that died on that day cannot return to their families," Lee said.
On Thursday, Ramsey County, Minnesota, District Judge Joanne Smith ordered Lee's release from prison, pending a new trial related to the sudden-acceleration crash of his Toyota Camry that killed three people.
Judge frees man convicted in fatal Toyota crash
Ramsey County Prosecutor Susan Gaertner immediately said she would drop the charges and wouldn't retry Lee.
"Mr. Lee will be a free man," Gaertner said in a written statement.
A jury convicted Lee of criminal vehicular homicide in 2007, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Lee had always maintained his innocence, saying the 1996 Camry accelerated uncontrollably before it crashed into two vehicles, killing a man, his 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old girl.
"I also want people to know that I'm not the one who caused the accident and I try everything I could to stop my car," Lee said on "American Morning" on Monday.
On Thursday, Lee asked the victims' family to forgive him and believe his story. In fact, the family of the victims had long ago become convinced of Lee's innocence and joined the effort to free him. They are suing Toyota.
"It's a bittersweet victory," Bridgette Trice, whose daughter died of injuries suffered in the crash, told CNN affiliate KARE-TV on Thursday. "I'm happy for the Lee family, that they're getting their justice. We want answers, and they're coming slowly but they're coming surely."
Mae Adams, whose nephews died in the accident, told KARE, "Our day is yet to come. ... We couldn't let this man sit in jail, no matter how much we wanted to know what happened."
Lee was driving home from Sunday services with his pregnant wife, father, daughter, brother and niece. He told investigators that he pumped the brakes as he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and approached an intersection, said his new lawyer, Brent Schafer.
But Ramsey County prosecutors said at trial that Lee had his foot on the gas as he approached cars waiting at a red light. The car was moving at 70 to 90 mph when it struck the other vehicles.
Two mechanical engineers examined the car before trial on behalf of the state and the defense, Gaertner said earlier this year. Both concluded the brakes were operating and there were no problems with the acceleration, she said.
"Bottom line, two experts -- one for each side -- said there was nothing wrong with the car," she said.
But Schafer said on "American Morning" on Monday that other evidence was ignored or misstated during the 2007 trial, leading to Lee's conviction.
"We found out, actually, it was known back in 2006, not long after this accident occurred, that if you were to look at the brake filament, you would have been able to tell that the brake lamp was illuminated at the time of the impact, which basically was evidence in support of Koua's story that the car was out of control and that he did everything to stop it. So, in fact, his foot was on the brake. That evidence was known prior to the trial." Schafer added, "By looking at the filament, it was clear -- and I don't think any experts disagree with this -- that the brakes were on at the point of impact."
Schafer also said the prosecution had false information about the type of brakes in the Camry.
"In addition, there was evidence at trial that this car did not have ABS brakes, which was a big part of the state's case. Because there were no skid marks, they concluded Koua was not on the brakes, and that was simply false testimony and I think that was also a key issue that led to his conviction," he said.
The 1996 Camry is not a part of Toyota's recall. Lee's accident is among the first of a growing number of cases getting a second look since Toyota announced the recall, acknowledging that problems with sudden acceleration are more extensive than originally thought.
In testimony before Congress, company executives apologized for underestimating the problem. Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles, prompting Schafer to seek a re-examination of the vehicle in the 2006 accident.
"This never seemed right. A man with his family in the car -- his pregnant wife -- goes on a suicide mission? Then, the recalls started, and the complaints sounded just like what happened to Mr. Lee," Schafer said in March. "It sounds just like a case of unintended acceleration."
In the end, though, the conviction was vacated not only because of evidence of mechanical failure, but also because Judge Smith determined Lee's original attorney, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, had failed to defend him adequately at trial.
Eichhorn-Hicks had stated in court that Lee must have had his foot on the accelerator, even though Lee himself always maintained that he had pumped the brake to no avail.
"Compelling evidence was produced at Mr. Lee's evidentiary hearing on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel," prosecutor Gaertner's statement said. "I wish Mr. Lee and his family the very best."