About 40 people waved signs and chanted in downtown St. Paul late Monday to protest the Ramsey County prosecutors' opposition to a new trial for Koua Fong Lee, who is serving eight years in prison for a collision in which his Toyota killed three people.
Lee has always insisted that the 2006 accident was caused when his 1996 Camry accelerated uncontrollably through an intersection. The protestors, who believe Lee deserves to be set free pending a new trial, chanted "We demand justice" and carried signs reading "Free Koua."
The protest was led by first time rally organizer Trudy Baltazar, a 50-year-old mother of two from Cottage Grove, Minnesota who said she's never met Lee nor participated in a protest before.
"I just felt outraged at the injustice," exclaimed Baltazar. "I felt like his voice wasn't being heard and I knew I had to do what I could to help Lee get a new trial and increase public awareness about his case." Some protestors learned of the protest via a Facebook page about the case that has thousands of fans from around the world.
Lee, 32, is serving eight years for criminal vehicular homicide in Lino Lakes prison for the crash four years ago, in which his Camry sped down an intestate ramp and hit an Oldsmobile. The crash killed driver Javis Adams and his 10-year-old son. Another passenger in the Oldsmobile, Adams' seven-year-old niece Devyn Bolton, was left quadriplegic and died a year and a half later. Lee has maintained he applied the brakes as hard as he could but that the car would not stop.
Lee's attorneys have requested a new trial, claiming unintended acceleration was to blame for the problem. The family of the victims has also backed a new trial. Michael Padden, attorney for the victims' family, said his clients are supportive of Lee's motion. "They support Lee's motion for a new trial and in addition support the notion that Lee should never be tried again. They don't believe he has any culpability at all in this matter."
Lee's attorneys succeeded in winning a reinspection of Lee's Camry, and Lee's lawyers and the prosecution both hired experts to prepare reports.
Driver Error or Vehicle Failure?
The defense's expert said there was evidence that the throttle was stuck open and that Lee was depressing the brakes at the time of the collision.
"The accelerator-to engine throttle cable and pulley system does not move freely, stays stuck and does not return to idle position…This could have held the throttle open after the accelerator pedal was released for a braking maneuver," wrote Richard Dusek, an engineering expert retained by Lee's attorney.
Experts retained by the Ramsey County attorney's office, however, blamed driver error. They reported that "the best explanation for the event was that Mr. Lee was depressing the throttle as he approached the crash area." Mechanical engineer Wayne Bartlett wrote that "there were no problems with the brakes or throttle system."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has logged more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, however, that as-yet-unreleased findings by NHTSA will blame driver error for many Toyota accidents involving sudden acceleration, based on analysis of a data recorders from Toyota vehicles. According to the Journal, NHTSA analyzed a sample of vehicles in which drivers said their brakes were depressed but didn't stop their cars from accelerating, and determined that the accelerators were depressed and the brakes were not engaged.
After Bartlett's report, Ramsey County prosecutors said they opposed a new trial for Lee. In a court filing late last month, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaernter concluded Lee had "…not offered any newly-discovered evidence that would establish a claim for new trial."
Judge Joanne Smith has scheduled a hearing for August 2 to allow both sides to argue their case.
When the prosecution announced its opposition to a new trial, Baltazar said she planned for the rally by reaching out to local businesses and media. She said she was pleased with the turnout and the response. "It felt so good and it encouraged me to continue forward on his behalf," said Baltazar.
Baltazar is planning another rally for the August 2nd hearing. In the meantime, she is focusing her efforts on raising money for Lee through the website www.freekoua.com which was launched by Lee's attorney. Baltazar also contacted the Facebook page, "FreeKouaFongLee," launched and maintained by Andrew Gwynn, a music producer and recording engineer in Los Angeles. The page has nearly 6,000 fans from around the world.
Protesting to Free Lee
Gwynn said he learned about the plight of Koua Fong Lee on ABC's Good Morning America and was compelled to do something.
"I wondered who was standing up for this guy," said Gwynn. "I created the Facebook page that same night. It took me 10 seconds to make the page and in the beginning it was growing by 1000 fans a week with fans from all over the world."
Gwynn said over 150 people joined the site on yesterday as a direct result of the St. Paul protest and that he's asking those on the Facebook page to donate money towards Lee's defense.
"The site has raised nearly $500 since it was started," said Gwynn. "I'm just trying to spread the word, build public support and put pressure on Ramsey County to do the right thing."
"Paul Gustafson, a representative from the Ramsey County Attorney's office, said Monday's protest in St. Paul was "not a huge development in the case." Said Gustafson, "People have an opportunity to comment about these things and I think that's what happened."
In public documents, Gaertner has acknowledged the sensitivity of this case. "I have great sympathy for everyone in the tragic crash, including Mr. Lee and his family. If Mr. Lee was innocent, I certainly didn't want him sitting in prison." She went on to state, "But the law is clear: Newly discovered evidence is required to overturn a conviction. Despite diligent efforts, we found no such evidence."
Gwynn believes social media along with the protest will be instrumental in helping raise awareness about Lee's case. He plans to maintain his Facebook page until Lee is set free.
"It's the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, search the web and update the site," said Gwynn. "Then I work 12-14 hours a day at my job, update the site on breaks and continue to update it when I get home from work. I want him home with his family."