If ever there were a case for the “never should have happened” file, it would be the story of Koua Fong Lee, who immigrated to the United States from his Hmong tribe in Southeast Asia shortly before he lost of control of his 1996 Camry and caused a devastating crash in Minnesota.
On June 10, 2006, Lee was traveling along Interstate 94 in St. Paul on his way home from church. In the car with him were his expectant wife, 4-year-old daughter, brother and father. Just before exiting, Lee’s Camry accelerated drastically to speeds of 70-90 miles per hour, ultimately colliding with other cars.
Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son Javis Adams, Jr. died when Lee’s car struck them from behind. Adams’ 6-year-old niece survived, but was paralyzed from the neck down and died about a year later.
The tragedy left many people with a hunger for justice, and Lee was charged with criminal vehicular homicide. He pleaded with the court, claiming that he tried to stop the car but the brakes wouldn’t work.
“I know 100 percent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible,” Lee told the Associated Press in an interview last week.
A mechanic who examined the Camry after the crash told the court that the brakes worked fine, and others testified that Lee simply mistook the gas pedal for the brakes. Lee was found guilty and sentenced to 8 years at a Minnesota prison in Lino Lakes.
Meanwhile, Lee’s wife and four young children have had to go on welfare to get by. While Lee studies for his high school equivalency exam in prison, his wife goes to school. As a convicted felon with a minimal education, Lee will likely struggle to support his family even after his release.
Lee’s attorney requested another trial for Lee when Toyota’s sudden acceleration problems led to extensive recalls. Investigators examined Lee’s Camry again and found that the filaments in the Camry’s brake lights proved Lee had been stepping on the brakes at the time of impact, just as he had claimed in court.
Now, the Toyota defect that ruined Lee’s life could also be the defect that restores his freedom.
The family of Javis Adams now believes that Lee is innocent after all and has begun preparing a lawsuit against Toyota.
Lee’s case is just one of many similar cases defense attorneys and prosecutors alike are re-opening in light of Toyota’s troubling defects, including sudden unintended acceleration and brake failure. An attorney for the victims in the Lee crash says that evidence gathered by federal regulators indicates an engine control module defect is present in Toyota makes and model years beyond those that have been recalled officially.
Whether Lee will be vindicated of the vehicular homicide charges is uncertain. Phil Carruthers, the attorney who prosecuted Lee, said that several factors from the original trial could work against the defendant.
According to the Associated Press, “Lee testified his brakes didn’t work, not that his car suddenly accelerated. And two experts – a city mechanic and an engineer hired by Lee’s insurance company – didn’t identify sudden acceleration as a problem with the car.” Meanwhile, Lee’s current attorney has said that sudden acceleration is the only reasonable explanation for the crash.