'Toyota defense' could reverse criminal conviction
By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
March 2, 2010
(CNN) -- A man serving eight years for vehicular homicide because of a fatal crash involving his Toyota Camry is hoping for exoneration amid concerns over unintended acceleration in some of Toyota's vehicles.
Koua Fong Lee has always maintained his innocence in the 2006 crash. Then 29 years old, he was driving home from Sunday services with his pregnant wife, father, daughter, brother and niece in his 1996 Toyota Camry.
Lee told investigators that he pumped the brakes as he exited I-94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and approached an intersection, his lawyer, Brent Schaefer, said. But Ramsey County prosecutors claimed Lee had his foot on the gas as he approached cars waiting at a red light.
The car was moving at between 70 and 90 mph when it struck two other vehicles. Javis Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., were killed instantly. Another passenger, 6-year-old Devyn Bolton, was left paraplegic. She testified in a wheelchair at Lee's trial and later died from her injuries.
Two mechanical engineers examined the car before trial on behalf of the state and the defense, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said. Both concluded the brakes were operating and there were no problems with the acceleration, she said.
Although the throttle was found set open at 15 percent, which is unusual, the abnormality was attributed at the time to damage from the crash, she said.
"Bottom line, two experts -- one for each side -- said there was nothing wrong with the car," she said.
A jury convicted Lee of criminal vehicular homicide and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. But he continues to maintain his innocence.
"I know that lives were lost that day, but I did everything within my power to try to stop that vehicle," Lee said in a recent prison interview with CNN affiliate KARE. "I never intended for this to happen."
The 1996 Camry is not a part of Toyota's recall.
Relatives of the victims, who asked the judge to give him the maximum sentence, now support him, said Bob Hilliard, a Texas lawyer who is preparing a lawsuit against Toyota on the family's behalf.
"I am passionate about getting him out and suing Toyota," Hilliard told CNN. He said the family feels "betrayed" by the evidence that led to Lee's conviction.
"It was all smoke and mirrors," Hilliard said.
"I hope to get to the bottom of it and find the truth," Quincy Adams, who survived the crash but lost his son, told KARE. "I feel that the boy [Koua Fong Lee] is innocent."
Lee's accident is among the first of a growing number of cases getting a second look since Toyota announced a recall, acknowledging that problems with sudden acceleration were more extensive than originally thought.
In testimony last week before Congress, company executives apologized for underestimating the problem.
Complete coverage of the Toyota recall
A search of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's online complaint database revealed 526 incidents listed for the 1996 Toyota Camry. Among the complaints concerning air bags, tires, steering and visibility were at least two dozen related to "vehicle speed control," some dating back to 1997.
"The contact states that while driving at 65 mph when placing her foot on the brake and slowing down, the vehicle accelerated on its own," an October 17, 2009, report states. "By putting extreme pressure on the brake, she was able to pull over and turned off vehicle."
In a July 26, 2003, incident, a 1996 Camry waiting at a red light lurched forward into oncoming traffic, where it was struck by a car and a motorcycle. The complaint states that the motorcyclist died five years later of injuries caused by the accident.
"With Toyota in the news, found reports of other 1996 Camry's [sic] with sudden acceleration so filed this complaint," the incident summary states.
Not all the entries for "vehicle speed control" complain of sudden acceleration.
"On several occasions the vehicle failed to respond when the accelerator was depressed," a February 25, 1998 complaint says.
Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles, prompting Lee's attorney to seek a re-examination of the vehicle in the 2006 accident.
"This never seemed right. A man with his family in the car -- his pregnant wife -- goes on a suicide mission? Then, the recalls started, and the complaints sounded just like what happened to Mr. Lee," lawyer Brent Schaefer said. "It sounds just like a case of unintended ac]celeration."
Schaefer says he has filed paperwork with the court stating his intention to retest the car, which remains in a vehicle impound.
"We plan to employ experts familiar with the '96 Camry and the components that make up car to show that rapid acceleration is to blame for the accident, not Mr. Lee accidentally stepping on the accelerator," he said.
Gaertner said her office is willing to cooperate with the examination and see where the results lead.
"We have no interest in an innocent man being behind bars. Accordingly, we are very open to considering evidence that might show that in fact he wasn't guilty," Gaertner said. "If we're going to disturb a conviction we need evidence."