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Driver in Toyota crash case freed as prosecutors decide against pursuing a new trial

By Peter Whoriskey
The driver of a Toyota Camry that fatally careened into another family's car was freed from an eight-year prison term on Thursday, after the judge and prosecutors weighed new evidence that the accident might have been caused by defects in the vehicle.

Once the judge called for a new trial for Koua Fong Lee, 32, prosecutors opted against trying him again.

"I believe it is time to bring this very tragic situation to a close," Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said. "He will not face further prosecution with the very sad events of June 10, 2006."

After his release, Lee spoke outside a downtown St. Paul hotel near the courthouse. According to news reports, Lee blinked back tears and his wife leaned against him. The couple have four children ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 8.

"It's not a dream. It's true," he said. "When we are asleep in the cell, sometimes I dream and I wake up in the little room, still in the little room. But now my dream come true."

His quest for a new trial became the highest profile test of the "Toyota defense," that is, attributing blame for a crash not on human error but on the highly publicized allegations that some Toyotas accelerate without the driver meaning to.

On the day of the crash, Lee and family members, including a 4-year-old daughter, were driving home from church when he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul. Ahead he saw an Oldsmobile Ciera, carrying another family, stopped for a red light.

"When I step on my brakes, it's not working," said Lee, who was born in Laos and came to the United States from Thailand in 2004. "I yelled to my wife that the brakes were not working."

Police estimated that the Camry was traveling 70 to 90 mph at the time of the crash. The driver of the Oldsmobile and his son died at the scene.

To win his release, defense attorneys argued that his previous attorney had made mistakes and presented testimony and affidavits from 10 owners of 1996 Camrys -- the same year as Lee's -- who experienced sudden unintended acceleration while driving.

Read the full story about Lee's case here.


By Peter Whoriskey  |  August 5, 2010; 10:17 PM ET
Categories:  Corporations  
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Comments

Hopefully he'll sue the crap out of Toyota. They have it coming for sure.

Posted by: Nymous | August 6, 2010 4:35 AM | Report abuse

He was fonglee accused.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

Well, either a run away vehicle or his foot jammed on the gas believing it is the brake...
Did they examine the computer memory to see if the gas pedal was pushed down?

dr. o

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

VEry sad -- but the right decision. Here are logical options:
1. It really was the Toyota. So he shouldn't be in jail
2. It was NOT the Toyota, this guy jammed the gas down thinking it was the brake. That's called "an accident". His own kid is in the car -- he does this stupid thing risking his own kid? Its sad its horrible - but it shouldn't be jail time.
3. The guy was suicidal/homicidal and wanted to kill everybody. Is there a shred of evidence to support this?

Posted by: humbleandfree | August 6, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Well, either a run away vehicle or his foot jammed on the gas believing it is the brake...
Did they examine the computer memory to see if the gas pedal was pushed down?

While I do believe that some percentage of the Toyota crashes are electronic malfunction I saw one woman who was backing out of a parking slot suddenly lurch forward and crash into the front steps of my office building (just missing me by inches) with her foot jammed down on the throttle of an older, completely non-electronic car while screaming, "It won't stop"... I backed the car down off the steps of the building and drove it around the lot and it worked normally - if a bit battered...

dr. o

dr. o

dr. o

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Toyota stinks!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Too bad that the original prosecutor did not believe a man who had yelled "the brakes are not working" at the time of the crash.
Typical overzealous law enforcement. I hope he sues.

Posted by: spro | August 6, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

BS, BS, BS!!! @humbleandfree,August 6, 2010 8:00 AM; 2. It was NOT the Toyota, this guy jammed the gas down thinking it was the brake. That's called "an accident". No, it is called a mishap, because it was humanly possible; i.e., within limits of human ability; to avoid the incident. And, according to my minimal research, there have been no verified incidents of unexplained acceleration; all have been caused by the operator, and that includes the so-called "floor mat over the accelerator" cause. Toyota has a loop fastener near the front of the driver-side seat where the Toyota-made floor mat is attached. If they used a non-Toyota-made mat; the fault lies with the operator, not Toyota.

Posted by: BeanerECMO | August 6, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

and yet Laura Bush with her wealthy parents was able to run a stop sign going 50 miles an hour, killing a high school track star in another car and she was never charged with anything.

not even a ticket for running the stop sign.

Posted by: MarilynManson | August 6, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

This sort of thing happened to a family member who was exiting a highway. Fortunately no one was killed or even suffered life-threatening injuries. I couldn't believe the stupid remarks made by the police, including that, although they acknowledged that the brakes had failed, the upward slope of the exit ramp would have been enough to stop the car unless it had been traveling at an excessive rate of speed on the highway. They eventually did acknowledge that their calculation of the speed of the vehicle had been in error, as they had failed to account for the wet pavement due to rain, and that the average driver would not have had enough training to have recognized warning signs, such as the smell of leaking brake fluid, that they claimed should have alerted this driver to the fact that the brakes were about to fail. Sometimes an accident is just an accident.

Posted by: CMNC | August 6, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Seems there's too many idiots on the road who don't know how to use neutral and the hand brake.

Posted by: thornwalker1 | August 6, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Why are people in the US still buying this jap crap of a car. Don't these people believe that this could happen to them to. I say our Government should ban all sales of the Toyota here until these people can prove that their cars are safe for all people to drive!

Posted by: randykree | August 6, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

The guy came from Cambodia in 2004 and the accident occurred in 2006. It is highly unlikely he was driving in Cambodia. So that would mean he had only two years of driving experience. I would suggest driver inexperience was the likely cause of the fatal accident rather than a faulty gas pedal.
On the other hand why was a prosecuted with such vindictiveness and how was he convicted? Granted lives were lost but an accident is still accident.

Posted by: SSTK34 | August 6, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I hope that he gets a large some of money from Toyota. It'll pale in comparison to the hundred billion per year trade deficit with Japan but it's something. btw - fools are still buying Toyotas, defending them and bashing GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I hope all the people involved can recover. It is extremely sad because whether it was a matter of human error or electronic malfunction, the crash and resulting death was unintended.

Perhaps this is whole Toyota thing is a case for bringing back manual transmissions and the smaller break pedals that come with the clutch. The break pedals in so many automatic cars are so huge that it is easy to confuse the break/gas. And, downshifting is a way to reduce speed with NO break. this won't prevent a crash, but it can reduce the harm.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to know why he was sentenced to 8 years??? He wasn't drunk and the brakes didn't work. He had witnesses. This is an obvious injustice based on economic status.
I read about people being killed by "bad driving" just about everyday and they never get 8 years! Just a slap on the wrist.
I feel so sorry for this man and his family.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Turn engine off use emergency brake but millions of drivers on the roads today should not be driving because they are unqualified.The judge probably did the right thing but until there is serious driver education in this country there will be more fatal accidents like the school buses in Missouri which there was no excuse for if they had been professional drivers that accident would not have happened.I'm a retired professional driver (Greyhound and other companies)3 million accident free miles.

Posted by: LDTRPT25 | August 6, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully he'll sue the crap out of Toyota. They have it coming for sure...And DA's office!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Not even close. Way too much reasonable doubt to convict.

Posted by: st50taw | August 6, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

OK, so there's probably no new promotion of a High Performance version of the Toyota Camry coming out any time soon. So why is there not a retrial ? Of Mr. Lee, not Toyota ? For it all seems very strange to me that we have two families which remain devistated, and a Court System which seems to be broken by this one Camry incidient. So, I'd like an answer, please.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Given the recent events and diclosures, there was more than enough evidence to give a jury reasonable doubt. That is probably why the prosecution decided against trying him again.

Suing Toyota is not the answer.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Given the recent events and disclosures, there was more than enough evidence to give a jury reasonable doubt. That is probably why the prosecution decided against trying him again.

Suing Toyota is not the answer.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

What was he doing in jail in the first place? Coming from Church with his kids and involved in accident, how does that get you 8 years in prison?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

There never should have been jail time to begin with. Crazy.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I drive a Suzuki and it happened to me just the other day. I was just about to park my car and it just jumped forward onto the sidewalk nearly hitting a brick wall. I looked down and my foot was on the brake. I'm still scared and drive and park more cautiously. Having that happen to me, I can honestly say it is not just Toyota. I know someone who has a Honda truck and he said, it happened to him as well.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to note that he was traveling 70-90 mph. That is already somewhat reckless and brakes working or not, he may not have been able to stop in time

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Hooray overzealous prosecutors!

Posted by: ozpunk | August 6, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

There was new research release just recently finding no evidence of flaws in the Toyota accelerator / throttle system. I looks like media hysteria is the root cause of the controversy.

Lee might my guilty of DWA, but he certainly should not have been convicted of a criminal offense in the first place. It was an accident - he had no motive or intent to harm anybody. He simply stepped on the wrong pedal, and after accelerating instead of braking, he stepped harder on the same pedal hoping something would change.

Posted by: maus92 | August 6, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

There was new research release just recently finding no evidence of flaws in the Toyota accelerator / throttle system. I looks like media hysteria is the root cause of the controversy.

Lee might my guilty of DWA, but he certainly should not have been convicted of a criminal offense in the first place. It was an accident - he had no motive or intent to harm anybody. He simply stepped on the wrong pedal, and after accelerating instead of braking, he stepped harder on the same pedal hoping something would change.

Posted by: maus92 | August 6, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

reasonable doubt.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

You hit the nail on the head there, Anonymous above me. To everyone who's speculating on his ability to drive, the only thing that matters in a criminal case is if the defense can prove reasonable doubt.

The acceleration issues with Toyota definitely raise the spectre of reasonable doubt and the man should therefor be free.

It's as simple as that. (And yes, he should sue).

Posted by: reiflame1 | August 6, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

The primary focus of this article should be on the fact that the severity of the man's sentence made sense only in the case where he was guilty of some very gross intentional negligence. The situation where the accident happened with the man's family after church don't fit the common profile for that kind of intentional reckless behavior. The real question is what the evidence was that justified such a severe sentence in the first place.

Posted by: dnjake | August 6, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I agree with another poster that asked "Why was he in jail in the first place?" The fact that he was sentenced to 8 years in prison -- even IF he had accidentally hit the gas pedal -- is so WRONG. Accidents DO happen and sometimes people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was a matter for Auto Insurance -- not Prison time. It was a tragic occurrence compounded by a tragic application of the law that should have never happened. I am glad he is free. The State made a huge mistake when they chose to prosecute this individual. Any chance Race had something to do with it?

Posted by: kathymce | August 6, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

This sudden unintended acceleration is an urban legend. It pops up every 10 years, for a different make of car each time, spurred on my plaintiffs's attorneys. Nothing is ever proven (except that 90 percent of victims are in their 80s), and it fades away, only to reawaken a decade later.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Let's not forget the Ciera in this picture. Having owned an Oldsmobile Ciera I can tell you unequivocally, before Mr. Lee and his Toyota, the owners of the Ciera were living on borrowed time. That model was a death trap on wheels when it came to braking and stability, especially in rainy conditions. A rear end collision of that force, you'd be spun around 3 times and rolled.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Might have been? Are the courts ruling on maybe's now?

Posted by: garys_opinion | August 6, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

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