Toyota-Brake Homicide Case—Koua Fong Lee Declares Victory!

Toyota-Brake Homicide Case—Koua Fong Lee Declares Victory!

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ST. PAUL, Minn.—On the fourth day of court, Ramsey County Attorneys offered a surprising deal to immediately release Koua Fong Lee if he simply admitted to being at fault in the 2006 fatal crash for which he was already convicted.

Simply admit your guilt and you get to go home for the first time in nearly three years to your wife and kids--or risk going back to prison for another five years if the Judge finds against your case.

Deal or no deal?

Lives tragically lost. Three years behind bars. Four young children who barely knew their father.

It may have been a difficult question for some to ponder, but Koua Fong Lee came back with an answer that shocked many in the courtroom: He rejected the deal, emphasizing one last time, “I stepped on the brakes. I did no wrong.”

Despite the temptation of freedom, Lee possessed the personal integrity to risk everything for what he believed all along as the truth. And while it took a massive recall by the world’s largest auto manufacturer to finally open some ears, it came down to one man’s unwavering belief in himself and a community who fought alongside with him to overcome the impossible challenge reversing his felony convictions.

And while the bereaved family who lost their loved ones in the accident might never be able to find true solace, Koua Fong Lee was able to find what he had sought all along since coming to America: He found Freedom.

There currently is no Hmong word that translates into “justice”, but Koua Fong Lee may have found a reason to rewrite the Hmong dictionary.

For nearly three years, Lee was confined to prison after a jury convicted him of felony vehicular homicide when the 1996 Toyota Camry he was driving unexpectedly sped up a highway ramp and smashed into an Oldsmobile, instantly killing two of the car’s occupants and fatally crippling another.

Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died at the scene. Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted.

From the initial police report and all throughout the trial, Lee adamantly repeated that he was stepping on the brakes, but yet couldn’t stop the Toyota from accelerating.

At the time of the trial, there didn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation for the mechanical phenomena. Lee’s original trial lawyer, Tracy Eichorn-Hicks, tried to gain a lesser charge by arguing to the jury that his client must have been stepping on the accelerator (contrary to his client’s own testimony.)

However, after the highly publicized Toyota recalls of 2009, a new term seemed to have permeated the public consciousness to explain what may have happened in Lee’s case: Unintended acceleration.

With the recall in mind, St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Emily Gurnon—who reported on Lee’s original trial—contacted attorney Brent Schafer, who then visited Lee in prison. From there, justice took its first few steps on behalf of the soft-spoken father of four who had spent more years in an American prison than he did as a free American.

It took six months from Schafer’s initial visit with Lee to get to the front steps of the Ramsey County Courthouse on the early evening of Thursday, August 5—a day that will register in the history books as one of St. Paul’s most compelling, dramatic courtroom decisions of recent memory.

Immediately after Judge Joanne Smith awarded Lee a new trial, County Attorney Susan Gaertner surprised the masses of press by announcing that her office was going to “bring this very tragic situation to a close” by dismissing the charges against Lee.

“Mr. Lee will be a free man,” the County Attorney concluded. “I wish Mr. Lee and his family the very best.”

This was the same County Attorney who only a month earlier asserted her vocal opposition to granting a new trial for Lee, spending nearly $30,000 to hire two automotive experts to examine Lee’s Toyota.

And although she said at that time that justice couldn’t be swayed by “public sympathy”, it is in the opinion of this reporter that “public sympathy” had a large part in setting Lee free.

Citizens from all walks of life were impassioned to sign petitions, carry protest signs and speak on behalf of the imprisoned Lee. With the assistance of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, this networking of people produced dozens of sworn affidavits from Toyota drivers from throughout the country who experienced similar acceleration issues with their vehicles. Some of these respondents would eventually sacrifice their time and resources to fly into St. Paul and give testimony at Lee’s evidentiary hearing.

Random citizens like Trudy Baltazar, who had never participated in a public protest of any kind, read about Lee’s predicament and decided, “I needed to do something about this injustice.”

She took the lead in organizing two protests and kept an online community of supporters actively involved in fund-raising and building awareness about Lee’s plight.

When Lee was released out of the Ramsey County Jail, Baltazar was one of the first persons who Lee embraced as he made an emotional effort to thank supporters who had gathered outside the jail.

“It’s just so unbelievable,” Baltazar blurted as she responded to the moment. “I’m just thrilled to have been a small part of what happened today.”

Of course the day could not have happened without the tireless efforts of Lee’s attorneys, Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard – both of whom worked for no fee on Lee’s behalf. Schafer credits Hilliard for not only the time and expertise he committed to the case, but for contributing his own resources to pay for the costly expenditures involved in this complex case.

Immediately after a heart-felt reunion between Lee and his four young children, Hilliard was asked how he felt.

“This is the crowning moment of my 30-year legal career, by a thousand fold,” said the Texas attorney while bouncing one of Lee’s young sons on his knees. “I have six kids myself and I couldn’t imagine being locked up for three years away from my loved ones, for something I didn’t do.”

While it was good lawyers who helped Lee get out of jail, it was actually the poor performance serviced by Lee’s original lawyer, Tracy Eichorn-Hicks, that was a major reason he went to jail in the first place.

Although much of the media attention and legal strategy focused on Lee’s Toyota, Judge Joanne Smith stated in her final ruling that “in the court’s opinion, the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel” was even more important than the mechanical evidence presented in court.

The one glaring example of “ineffective counsel” that Judge Smith cited was the lack of proper cross-examination to the prosecutor’s key mechanical expert, Michael Churchich, who testified that the absence of skid-marks at the accident scene indicated Lee was not braking. Churchich went on to testify that Lee’s Toyota did not have ABS (Anti-lock Brake System), a braking system that leaves no skid-marks.

At the evidentiary hearing, however, it was definitively presented that Lee’s Toyota did indeed have ABS, a fact that Eichorn-Hicks never bothered to investigate nor refute at the original trial.

Judge Smith contemplated that had “Mr. Churchich been properly cross-examined on this point, this may very well have impeached the rest of his testimony.”

During the remainder of Judge Smith’s thirty-minute summation, Lee’s attorneys would occasionally look back to supporters in the courtroom, giving them affirmative smiles and head nods.

Yet, when the Judge was about to give her final decision, the courtroom was noticeably tense with anticipation. Despite the pre-warning to the courtroom to refrain from any emotional outbursts when she announces her decision, nearly everybody in the courtroom broke down into a tear-filled sigh of relief the very instant when she said, “I am going to grant your release today.”

Lee himself jumped up from his seat and pumped his fist in the air.

“This is not a dream!” Lee would say while embracing his wife, Panghoua Moua, for the first time as a free man. “I dreamed in prison that I was free. But this is not a dream!”

On a day when the cameras and the flash bulbs would not seem to stop, the highlight of Lee’s evening occurred when the doors swung open and in came his four young children, Jemes, 8, Yupheng, 5, Yengzong, 3, and Angel, 2.

“My life begins today. My children will know who their father is.”