Friday, January 30, 2015

Prison For a Defective TOYOTA?

Brent Schafer and Koua Fong Lee





Release of Koua Fong Lee

ABC NEWS: Toyota Driver Koua Fong Lee Released from Prison; No New Trial for Deadly Crash
CNN NEWS: Minnesota Judge Frees Minnesota Man
WCCO NEWS: Judge Frees Koua Fong Lee...Charges Dismissed

The Koua Fong Lee Story

Koua Fong Lee came to America with his family from a Thailand refugee camp in 2004, looking for a better life and an education. Instead, Mr. Lee has been serving an 8-year prison sentence for criminal vehicular homicide, following a 2006 car crash that killed three people.

Koua Fong Lee was returning home from church on June 10, 2007. He was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry. His pregnant wife sat beside him. His 8-year-old daughter, his brother and father sat in the backseat. He was traveling from Minneapolis to his home in St. Paul. The radio was off and he was not talking on a cellphone. He exited I-94 eastbound onto the Snelling Avenue exit ramp traveling at 50-55 mph. He took his foot off the accelerator and applied the brake as he approached the intersection of Concordia and Snelling Avenues. The brakes did not slow the Camry. Mr. Lee yelled to his family ”brakes not working!”

Mr. Lee continued to pump and press the brake pedal. The Camry would not slow but instead continued to accelerate. He moved from the most left lane of the ramp to the center lane, avoiding vehicles traveling in front of him. He then moved from the center lane to the far right lane of the ramp to avoiding hitting other vehicles traveling and stopped on the ramp. Mr. Lee continued to pump and press the brake pedal during these maneuvers. The was no place for him to go as he approached the intersection. The signal light was red and cars were stopped at the intersection. One was stopped in the far right lane and the other about two vehicle lengths off the intersection in the center lane. Mr. Lee observed a space between the two stopped vehicles. He attempted to negotiate his vehicle through the space. As he split the two vehicles, he sideswiped the vehicle in the center lane. The force of the initial collision redirected his vehicle into the rear driver-side of the second vehicle stopped in the far left lane. Mr. Lee's Camry recoiled back from the collision and then accelerated forward across the intersection of Snelling and Concordia. Mr. Lee struck the rear driver-side of another vehicle that was traveling northbound on Snelling. Mr. Lee's Camry came to rest against a fence across the intersection. Two people in the second vehicle struck by Mr. Lee's Camry died at the scene and another young girl died a year and a half later. Three others were seriously injured.

Investigators calculated that Mr. Lee's car was traveling 70 to 90 miles an hour when it slammed into the back of a stopped Oldsmobile, instantly killing Javis Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Another passenger, 6-year-old Devyn Bolton, died from her injuries more than a year later.

After examining the vehicle, a mechanic found nothing wrong with the brakes. Prosecutors argued that Lee stepped on the gas, not the brake, and a jury agreed, convicting him of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced him to 8 years in prison.

Lee fired his attorney following his conviction and retained Minneapolis Attorney Brent S. Schafer to represent him at the sentencing phase of the case. Schafer filed extensive documentation with the judge who would be sentencing Lee. Schafer requested and argued that Lee serve only 1 year in jail rather than several in prison, as required by Minnesota law. Following a lengthy sentencing hearing, the Judge disagreed with Schafer and sentenced Lee to spend 8 years in prison.

Attorney Brent S. Schafer says his client has always focused on the brakes as the problem. "He could only explain what happened in that he tried to apply the brakes and it didn't work and that the vehicle would only accelerate up the ramp," Schafer said.

In January of 2010, Schafer reopened the Lee case after numerous Toyota recalls for sudden unintended acceleration (SUA). Schafer teamed-up with a well known products liability attorney, Robert Hilliard of Corpus Christi, Texas. Together Schafer and Hilliard promised Lee that they would do whatever it took to gain his release and a new trial. Schafer soon discovered that Lee was not the only owner of a 1996 Toyota Camry that had accelerated out-of-control.

After Lee's story was reported in newspapers and news programs such as CNN, MSNBC, Good Morning America and World News Tonight, Schafer was flooded with letters, e-mails and calls from people all over the country who had experienced the same SUA as described by Lee. Schafer said, "It was at this point in time when I was absolutely convinced that there was an innocent man in prison."

This was a defective prosecution caused by a defective car." Schafer collected affidavits from over 50 late-model Toyota drivers throughout the United States, each one describing an experiencing during which their Toyota would accelerate out-of-control.

In April of 2010, Schafer and Hilliard filed a Petition for Post Conviction Relief seeking a new trial for Lee based upon the new evidence of SUA, the ineffective assistance of trial counsel and improper/wrong expert testimony during trial. In July, a Ramsey County District Court Judge granted Lee's request for a hearing to determine whether he was entitled to a new trial. The hearing was scheduled to begin on August 2, 2010.

On Tuesday, August 3, 2010 during the second day of an evidentiary hearing, two more victims of sudden acceleration testified that their vehicles sped out of control just like Koua Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry. Expert witnesses also testified about important key facts -- reasons his lawyers say Koua Lee should be given a new trial. “From the moment Lee stepped out of the vehicle and was interviewed by the police officer at the scene he said he was pushing the brakes,” said defense attorney Bob Hilliard. “He said that through trial and his lawyer stood up and told the jury the exact opposite.” In the original trial, his attorney told a jury that Lee may have simply been confused. That he mistakenly pressed the gas when he thought he was hitting the brake. But Lee never gave his attorney permission to make that statement. “This is your lawyer telling the jury that you’re wrong,” said Hilliard. “That his client is wrong,”

Samuel Sero, a forensic engineer testified that Lee’s Toyota Camry was equipped with ABS brakes at the time of the accident. But the jury that convicted Lee of criminal vehicular homicide was told the car did not have anti-lock brakes. “That’s a big deal because they had to show the brakes were functioning properly so they put on testimony that Mr. Lee’s brakes were working and he said he was braking. If that was true he would have stopped.” Hilliard says, that would explain why there were no skid marks at the scene. A technical witness who inspected the car back in April testified the tail lights showed the brakes were being applied at the time of the crash. “Everybody, even the state’s experts agree that light, when you look at it today right now, shows that the light was on at the time of impact,” said Hilliard.

On August 5, 2010, the morning of the final day of the trial, the Ramsey County Attorney offered to release Mr. Lee and allow him to go home. However, the County Attorney would not agree to reverse the convictions and give Mr. Lee a clean criminal record. Accepting the offer would return Mr. Lee to his wife and four children but he would arrive back home a convicted felon on probation for nearly 15 years and a person not eligible for a driver's license for the next 10 years. Mr. Lee declined the offered. Later that day Lee sat quietly and watched Schafer stand before the Judge and lay out in detail the new evidence and other legal reasons that entitled Mr. Lee to a new trial.

At approximately 5:00 p.m. on August 5, 2010, in a highly anticipated decision by a Ramsey County, Minnesota Judge, Koua Fong Lee was granted a retrial and released from prison! Later that day, the Ramsey County Attorney announced that they would not be retrying Mr. Lee.

See the back-story on the Koua Fong Lee Toyota Case below:

ABC News Special Report with Brian Ross--Part 1
ABC News Special Report with Brian Ross--Part 2
CNN Minnesota Man Jailed for Fatal Toyota Accident...Defective Toyota?
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