Koua Fong Lee, who had spent over two years behind bars for his role in a collision that killed three people, was freed today when a judge vacated his sentence. The reason: ineffective legal counsel, and evidence that suggested Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry could have been driving out of control. The Ramsey County (MN) prosecutor has decided against re-trying Lee, making him a free man. Meanwhile, the fact that 1996 Toyota Camrys have not been recalled for faulty brakes or throttle units leaves a huge question mark hanging over this case.
CNN explains the basic conflict in Lee’s trial thusly:
Lee was driving home from Sunday services with his pregnant wife, father, daughter, brother and niece. He told investigators that he pumped the brakes as he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and approached an intersection, said his new lawyer, Brent Schafer.
But Ramsey County prosecutors said at trial that Lee had his foot on the gas as he approached cars waiting at a red light. The car was moving at 70 to 90 mph when it struck the other vehicles.
Experts from both the prosecution and the defense both inspected the vehicle in question during Lee’s 2007 trial, and found nothing wrong. Since then, Lee’s new lawyer explains that more information has come to light
We found out, actually, it was known back in 2006, not long after this accident occurred, that if you were to look at the brake filament, you would have been able to tell that the brake lamp was illuminated at the time of the impact, which basically was evidence in support of Koua’s story that the car was out of control and that he did everything to stop it. So, in fact, his foot was on the brake. That evidence was known prior to the trial. By looking at the filament, it was clear — and I don’t think any experts disagree with this — that the brakes were on at the point of impact.”
In addition, there was evidence at trial that this car did not have ABS brakes, which was a big part of the state’s case. Because there were no skid marks, they concluded Koua was not on the brakes, and that was simply false testimony and I think that was also a key issue that led to his conviction
Of course, criminal procedure is designed to prevent wrongful imprisonment, and surely nobody wishes to undermine the joy that Lee’s family must certainly be feeling right now, but if Lee is not guilty, one must assume that his car is. Given that 1996 Camry’s have no known record of unintended acceleration, that no recalls have taken place for issues related to unintended acceleration, and that Lee’s vehicle in particular was found to have no malfunctions, it’s obvious that the 1996 Toyota Camry is having the burden of proof shoved squarely on its shoulders.
Should Lee or the family of those who died in that terrible accident sue Toyota, this case will get a lot more interesting. In the meantime, it shows just how nebulous and yet far-reaching the idea of unintended acceleration has become… and how ill-prepared our justice system is to deal with it.