Judge to rule on new trial for Minn. Toyota driver convicted in fatal ‘06 crash

By Martiga Lohn, AP
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Judge to rule on new trial for Minn. Toyota driver

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Attorneys for a Minnesota man convicted in a deadly 2006 Toyota crash argued Thursday that he deserves a new trial because his original lawyer failed to explore the possibility of unintended acceleration.

A Ramsey County District judge is expected to rule later Thursday on the request from Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul. Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison on criminal vehicular homicide and other charges after he plowed into another car, ultimately killing three people.

Lee requested a new trial in the wake of Toyota Corp.’s issues with sudden unintended acceleration in newer-model cars — even though Lee’s 1996 Camry was never recalled.

“From the day he stepped out of the car, he said the brakes were not working,” defense attorney Brent Schafer said in closing arguments.

Schafer argued that Lee’s original attorney introduced the idea that Lee inadvertently stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes, compromising his case.

Prosecutor Mark Lystig said Lee was driving too fast and was unfamiliar with the car when the crash occurred. Lystig downplayed testimony about unintended acceleration from drivers of Toyota models similar to Lee’s, saying their stories could be countered by tens of thousands of other Toyota drivers who experienced no such problems.

“He hit the accelerator. There’s no other rational explanation,” Lystig told the judge.

Earlier Thursday, Lee rejected Lystig’s offer to ask the judge to vacate his sentence and free him immediately.

Schafer said the convictions would have stayed on Lee’s record. Lee also would have been on probation for 15 years, putting him at risk of being imprisoned to complete his original sentence if he did anything wrong. The offer also would have banned him from having a driver’s license for 10 years.

“He’s innocent,” Schafer said outside the courtroom.

Prosecutors have opposed a new trial, saying Lee’s attorneys have not offered conclusive new evidence.

Lee’s former attorney, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, testified Wednesday that he thought the only way he could win the case was to suggest his client made a mistake, accidentally stepping on the gas instead of the brake.

Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant with only about a year of driving experience, was driving his family home from church on June 10, 2006, when their Camry zoomed up an Interstate 94 exit ramp in St. Paul. Police said it was traveling between 70 and 90 mph when it rear-ended an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light.

Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died at the scene. Adams’ 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted. Two others were badly hurt.

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