By Emily Gurnon
Koua Fong Lee, left, and his wife, Panghoua Moua, react after hearing that charges against him were dropped, on August 5, 2010. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
Koua Fong Lee spent 2-1/2 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Now, the state is prepared to put a dollar amount on his suffering.
Attorneys for Lee, who was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after crashing his Toyota Camry in 2006, have filed a stipulation in Ramsey County District Court for him to receive compensation under a law that took effect July 1.
The Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act provides a minimum of $50,000 per year of imprisonment, plus actual costs incurred by the defendant, for any individual wrongfully imprisoned who meets certain other requirements.
Lee is the first person to file for compensation under the new law, experts said.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi joined in the stipulation, agreeing that Lee is eligible based on his exoneration.
"This was very easy for us to do, because this was the right thing to do," Choi said.
"Knowing what we do today, (the case) would not likely have been charged."
Lee, now 37, of St. Paul, was taking the Snelling Avenue exit from eastbound Interstate 94 in St. Paul on June 10, 2006, when he crashed into an Oldsmobile Ciera that was stopped for a red light.
He tried to slow his Camry.
"The brakes aren't working!" he yelled to his passengers, all members of his family.
Two people in the Oldsmobile, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and Javis Adams Jr., 9, died instantly. Devyn Bolton died a year and a half later, at age 7, from complications of quadriplegia. Lee was charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide.
He was convicted at trial in 2007 and sentenced in January 2008 to eight years in prison. But after reports surfaced in 2009 and 2010 of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas, and questions arose about the trial attorney's handling of Lee's case, two new lawyers asked the judge to throw out his conviction.
Then-Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner opposed the effort.
Judge Joanne Smith heard four days of testimony, which included harrowing accounts by other drivers of the same model vehicle as Lee's, a 1996 Camry, who had also experienced sudden acceleration.
She also heard testimony about the alleged mishandling of the trial by Lee's defense attorney at the time.
Once the testimony was in, the judge swiftly set Lee free.
The state then dismissed the charges.
The Minnesota Innocence Project helped get Lee out of prison and spearheaded the new legislation.
"I think it's a way of giving people something for the years that they lost in prison," said Julie Jonas, attorney with the Innocence Project.
"Money can't fix everything, but it's a starting point, and it can help."
Lee and another wrongly imprisoned man, Michael Hansen, testified at the Legislature this year for the bill.
Hansen, of Lonsdale, was convicted in the death of his baby daughter, but later showed the death was accidental.
Smith signed an order Tuesday determining that Lee is eligible for the money.
His case will now go to a panel of three attorneys or judges appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court to determine a dollar amount.
The law calls for a damages award of between $50,000 and $100,000 per year spent in prison.
It also provides at least $25,000 for each year served on supervised release or as a registered predatory offender; those categories do not apply to Lee.Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, a co-sponsor of the law, said it recognizes that, "as good as our system is," people are still wrongly put behind bars.
There was some initial resistance from the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Lesch said, but that was to be expected."It looks initially like an attack. The natural tendency is to say, 'Something went wrong, we want to blame someone,' and it tends to be the prosecutor," he said. But Choi acted as a "very effective mediator."
Choi said the idea of a wrongful conviction implies that "people were intentionally trying to do bad things," and that did not happen with the Lee case.
"In Minnesota, I really believe we try to do the best that we can. We try to do justice," he said.
"Our worst nightmare is to convict an innocent person"
At the time Lee was charged, problems with unintended acceleration were not widely recognized.
Those involved in the trial, including the prosecution, the jury and the judge, were working in good faith, Choi said. Lee could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
His attorneys said he has earned his associate's degree and is working on a bachelor's degree. He hopes to become a social worker.
A civil case filed by Lee and the victims of the crash against Toyota is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 7
in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.