In June 2006, while Koua Fong Lee and his family were driving home from church in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated to 90 miles per hour and crashed into the back of another car, killing three people and injuring others. There were no skid marks, which authorities said indicated that Lee did not brake before the crash. Lee maintained that he had tried to stop the car, but it did not respond. However, at Lee’s trial, his own attorney suggested that Lee might have hit the wrong pedal, intending to brake, but instead stepping on the gas. In October 2007, a jury convicted Lee of vehicular homicide, and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
Two years later, in 2009, other Toyota drivers complained about sudden acceleration, and Toyota began to recall millions of cars, though not the 1996 Camry. With help from the Innocence Project of Minnesota, Lee’s new attorney tracked down other drivers who had experienced similar sudden acceleration in cars similar to Lee’s. The new attorney also pointed out that Lee’s car had anti-lock brakes, which meant that there would be no skid marks if Lee had tried to brake -- a fact Lee’s original attorney failed to bring up at trial. Based on this new evidence and the errors of his trial attorney, Lee filed a motion for a new trial. Just before the trial judge was to rule on his motion, Lee rejected a deal from the prosecution in which he could have been immediately released if he withdrew his motion and pled guilty. In August 2010, the trial court judge vacated Lee’s conviction and granted him a new trial. Shortly after the ruling, the prosecution announced that it would not seek a retrial and Lee was released.
- Stephanie Denzel