Koua Fong Lee has been released from jail. Lee, who was convicted of vehicular homicide, served two and a half years of an eight-year sentence. The judge ordered him released pending a new trial, given new evidence. But prosecutors declined to try Lee again.
Lee rejected a plea agreement from the prosecutors prior to the judge’s ruling. He would have been released, but maintained the status of a convicted felon and additionally would have lost his driving privileges for ten years. Good thing he didn’t take it.
The prosecutors suck. The defense attorney sucked. The judge sucked. And was Lee afforded an interpreter at trial? The moral of the story: If you’re going to kill somebody while driving, you’re better off being a drunken white person.
Edited to add: What the heck does this mean?
Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith — who presided over Lee’s original trial and had sentenced him to the maximum — said if that testimony from the other Toyota drivers had been introduced then, it would “more likely than not, or probably, or even almost certainly” have resulted in a different verdict for Lee.
Smith also said Lee’s limited English was a factor in her conclusion, as well as the work of his defense attorney.
“There were multiple errors and omissions by his attorney that necessitate this result,” Smith said.
Edited again to add:
Lee released from prison, won’t be retried//
By Pat Pheifer, Star Tribune, MinneapolisAug. 06–Koua Fong Lee, serving an 8-year sentence for a criminal vehicular homicide after his Toyota crashed and killed three people, was granted a new trial Thursday and was freed.
Shortly after the judge’s ruling, the Ramsey County attorney said that she won’t seek a new trial, ending Lee’s four-year ordeal.
“I respect the judge, and I respect her ruling, and I believe it is time to bring this very tragic situation to a close,” County Attorney Susan Gaertner said in statement released by her office. “He will not face further prosecution with the very sad events of June 10, 2006… Mr. Lee will be a free man.”
Lee, of St. Paul, hugged his attorney, Bob Hilliard, as the judge unequivocally granted the new trial, citing new evidence and errors made by his trial counsel, Tracy Eichhorn Hicks.
“I would like to say thank you for everybody,” Lee said. “First, like I say earlier, first thing I’m going to do is get to know my children. It’s a real long time. And they don’t know me. I want them to know the word daddy. I am their daddy.
“Thank you to my lawyers, my legal team. Also, I’m glad to say thank you to the people of Minnesota….
“Finally I want to say to the family (the victims’ families), I would like them to know this is not my intention to cause this incident. And I want them to know I will pray for them. I also want them to forgive. And to believe me.”
Lee’s wife, Panghoua Moua, sobbed silently in the courtroom as the order for a new trial was read.
Ramsey County Sheriff Deputies took Lee from the courtroom to the Ramsey Jail, where he was released shortly before 6 p.m. He had been serving his sentence in the Lino Lakes Prison.
Before Gaertner’s announced that she would not seek a new trial, Lee’s attorneys expressed confidence that Gaertner would not attempt to try Lee again.
“He will never be retried,” said Hilliard. “They don’t have the facts. I invite Susan [Gaertner, the county attorney] to retry it.”
Added Lee’s co-counsel, Brent Schafer: “I’m happy to retry this case. Bring it on.”
At 4 p.m., a packed courtroom hushed as Ramsey District Judge Joanne Smith entered to give her ruling. She cautioned people to not publicly exclaim no matter what her ruling was. She then went over much of the evidence she had heard over the last four days.
She said that on the claim of newly discovered evidence, much of the evidence could have been discovered before the trial. The exception, an important one, she said, were the wintesses who testified about their own experiences with Toyota Camrys racing out of control.
“They were credible,” she said.
She particularly cited the testimony of Ron Neumeister, a pilot for Sun Country and a member of the Minnesota National Guard.
“It would be inconceivable to be sitting in this courtroom and doubt” what he experienced, she said.
Neumeister testified that he experienced several incidents of sudden unintended acceleration in his ’96 Camry, but his training as pilot and soldier helped him to not panic and gain control of the car by putting it in neutral and turning the ignition off.
Smith said it was significant that Michael Churchich, a mechanic for the city of St. Paul who examined the car after the accident testified at trial that Lee’s car did not have antilock brakes. The judge said Churchich clearly erred on that fact after several experts testified that the car did, in fact, have anti-lock brakes.
“If he is wrong about this, what else is he wrong about?” the judge said.
She also cited a letter that Eichhorn Hicks had in his possesion at the time of trail in which an insurance company investigator found that the vehicle was braking at the time of impact. Eichhorn Hicks never used that information at trial.
The county attorney didn’t know about that phrase in the letter, which had been redacted.
Smith also cited Eichhorn Hicks’ opening argument, in which he said that Lee may have been guilty of negligence, but not gross negligence. He said that, despite Lee’s insistence that the crash was caused by the mechanical malfunction, not his driving.
“The court finds that given the petitioner’s steadfast conviction [of innocence] he cannot be presumed to have acquiesed” to his trial attorney acknowledging negligence.
Lee had insisted he tried to brake his 1996 Camry before it plowed into a car as he exited a St. Paul freeway in 2006, but that he was unable to counteract a stuck accelerator. The 32-year-old’s case got a new look in the wake of Toyota’s widely publicized problems with sudden acceleration in newer-model Toyotas.
Lee’s attorneys had argued evidence backed up Lee’s account he was trying to brake. They also argued his defense attorney did a poor job.
Judge Joanne Smith said she found the testimony Eichhorn Hicks gave earlier this week “incredulous.”