County Attorney's Experts Reject Defense Claim of Camry's Mechanical Flaw

Reports say sudden unintended acceleration not cause of fatal accident.

June 29, 2010, 6:28 PM

June 29, 2010— -- Mechanical engineers hired by the Ramsey County attorney's office to inspect the 1996 Toyota Camry involved in a St. Paul, Minnesota, crash that killed three determined driver error -- not unintended acceleration -- was the cause of the accident.

In a report submitted to the county, Wayne Bartlett, an engineering expert from Rochester, New Hampshire, wrote: "The best explanation for the event was that [Koua Fong Lee] Mr. Lee was depressing the throttle as he approached the crash area."

Lee, 32, was heading home from church with his family in June 2006 when his Toyota Camry sped down an interstate ramp and hit an Oldsmobile. Javis Adams and his 10-year-old son were killed in the collision. Adams' 7-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was left quadriplegic and died a year and a half later.

Lee, serving eight years at Lino Lakes prison for the accident, has maintained he applied the brakes as hard as he could to stop the car.

"I stepped on the brakes and nothing happened," Lee told ABC News in an exclusive prison interview in February. "And I yelled to my family, 'The brake's not working, brake's not working!'"

However, in his report, Bartlett concluded "There were no problems with the brakes or throttle system..." at the time of the crash. While he noted corrosion had covered metal surfaces of the brakes due to the vehicle's storage since the accident, "... all four brakes had sufficient friction material and the brake discs were in acceptable condition."

Frank Sonye, a consultant and retired General Motors investigator, was also hired by the county to inspect the car. His report agreed with Bartlett's assessment and noted, "If the brakes were fully and firmly applied, the vehicle would have slowed substantially, not accelerated."

"We hired these independent experts and asked them to carefully examine the vehicles and be as thorough and careful as possible to determine was there a defect in the vehicle that could have caused this crash," said Phil Carruthers, director of the Prosecution Division of the Ramsey County Attorney's office.

Competing Explanations

Lee's attorney, Bob Hilliard called the findings a fabrication.

"The lunacy of this position would be amusing but for the fact that an innocent man is beginning his fourth year in prison for doing absolutely nothing wrong, other than trying as hard as he could to avoid this tragic accident," he said.

Hilliard and his co-counsel Brent Schaffer petitioned the court for a new trial earlier this year.

Both Bartlett and Sonye inspected the car on April 20-21 with Richard Dusek, an expert retained by Lee's attorney.

In his findings released last month, Dusek wrote: "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 he accelerator pedal was released for a braking maneuver."

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Dusek further noted the rear light on the driver's side had both filaments broken and indicated that the brakes had been pressed prior to impact.

But Sonye's report challenged Dusek's conclusion, stating: "The damage sustained by the left brake lamp filament does not indicate how long before the impact the brakes had been applied."

And while Bartlett agreed the left rear light was broken as a result of the accident, he said: "The deformation of the left bulb does not give any indication about the brake status..." nor does it "... indicate whether the driver's foot was on the brake and pressing intentionally, or the pedal was actuated by some other means..."

Hilliard rejects their explanation of the broken filament saying, "They speculate he was just pushing the accelerator and that the brake lights just got turned on by themselves." Hilliard goes on to say, "They have discovered a new defect in the Toyota; Sudden Unintended Braking."

"It's a tragic case all the way around," said Carruthers of the Ramsey County Attorney's office. "We try to be open to re-examine cases and to be as thoughtful and careful and objective as possible with the idea of reaching the truth."

With the vehicle inspection reports from both sides submitted, the County Attorney's office must respond to Lee's request for a new trial on Wednesday. Then it will be up to Judge Joanne Smith to decide if a new trial will be granted.

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