New Evidence of Runaway Toyotas May Help Imprisoned Camry Owner

Jury didn't believe driver who claimed he couldn't stop car that killed three.

February 21, 2010, 4:50 PM

Feb. 22, 2010 — -- Emerging evidence of flaws in Toyotas could help free a Minnesota man who was convicted of vehicular homicide despite his claims the brakes did not work as his Camry suddenly accelerated and slammed into another car, killing three members of one family.

"There is a terrible wrong here, and there is an innocent man in prison," said Brent Schafer, the lawyer for 32-year of Koua Fong Lee, a Hmong refugee from Laos serving an eight-year sentence in a Minnesota state prison.

The county prosecutor, Susan Gaertner, said she welcomed an inspection of the Toyota "to see if there is any possibility that this particular car had mechanical difficulties that would lead to sudden acceleration syndrome."

There was no evidence of alcohol or drug impairment in the case, which occurred on a Sunday afternoon in June 2006 as Lee returned home from church with his pregnant wife and other members of his family.

Lee's car hit the other car at a speed estimated between 70 and 90 miles per hour. Lee testified he shouted to his family, "Brakes, brakes not working," moments before the fatal crash.

The jury apparently did not believe Lee's testimony, said Schafer, who did not represent him during the trial.

"He's always, from the day this happened, maintained it was the car," said Schafer. Lee's testimony was presented through a Laotian translator and Schafer said the judge commented at Lee's sentencing that Lee did not seem to show remorse.

"I am so sad," Lee told ABC in an interview inside his prison. "To the victims' family and everybody else, this was not something I intended to happen," he said through a translator. "I tried to avoid this situation to the best of my abilities."

The wave of recent Toyota recalls connected to cases of sudden acceleration led Lee's lawyers to discover that some 1996 Camrys had been the subject of a recall because of "unintended acceleration" caused by a flaw in the cruise control ten years prior to the accident.

The fact of the recall was not presented at the trial.

Acceleration in Toyota Camrys

The 1996 Camry is not the subject of the current round of safety recalls, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 17 complaints from owners of other 1996 Camrys alleging defects that led to sudden acceleration, some of them quite recently.

"Vehicle accelerated on its own," wrote one owner to the government. "It was a very dangerous situation," wrote another. "The vehicle reached speeds of 60-80 mph while running two stop signs. Had to crash into a tree and another vehicle to stop the vehicle," wrote a Camry owner in October 2009.

The family of the people killed in the accident have joined in the effort to re-examine the evidence and seek Lee's freedom.

"I was angry for a moment, but when I came to my senses and thought about it, I didn't understand it," said Quincy Adams whose son and grandson were among those killed.

"I can't believe that a guy with his pregnant wife, a kid in a car seat, his father-in-law and a brother-in-law in the car, would purposely be speeding up this ramp like that," said Bridgette Trice, whose seven-year old daughter later died from injuries suffered in the accident.

She said the news stories about Toyota's problems led her to reconsider what happened in the accident that killed her daughter.

"Maybe there is something to what Mr. Lee said was going on with him in his car, that he couldn't stop, that he tried his hardest, and the brakes, that his car wouldn't stop," said Ms. Trice.

"He's never wavered on his story that his brakes were bad," she added.

"Now that we know what we know, I promise you there are jurors out there, in the criminal case, that are just shaking their heads saying finally something makes sense," said Bob Hilliard, a lawyer representing the family of the people killed in the accident.

Hilliard says Toyota has many questions to answer about this case.

"I believe that Toyota sat on its hands and watched as a man who did not have any conscious part of this accident was tried in a criminal court and sent to jail for eight years," said Hilliard.

A Toyota spokesman said the company would not comment because the case could lead to lawsuits against Toyota.

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