ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The horrific crash seemed, at the time, baffling.
On June 10, 2006, a 29-year-old driver exited eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, traveling about highway speed, he testified in court.
By the time he reached Snelling, his car was going as fast as 90 mph.
“Like it was shot out of a rocket,” a Ramsey County prosecutor said at the man's trial.
The car hit an Oldsmobile stopped at the red light, killing a father and his 10-year-old son. His 7-year-old niece was left a quadriplegic and died a year and a half later.
Koua Fong Lee -- who insisted throughout his trial that he was desperately trying to stop -- was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced in 2008 to eight years in prison.
His car: a 1996 Toyota Camry.
Amid news of millions of recalled Toyotas for problems relating to sudden acceleration, Lee's defense attorney said Wednesday that he wants to try to get the case reopened.
“I don't know who could disagree with this being a possible cause -- because otherwise he's just a wild kamikaze guy trying to kill somebody,” said Bloomington attorney Brent Schafer.
The car still exists
Schafer said he sent a letter Wednesday to the St. Paul police impound lot, where the car still remains. He intends to petition the court for an order preserving the car and seeking an OK to get it reexamined.
Toyota Motor Corp. is recalling more than 8 million cars and trucks due to faulty accelerator pedals. The 1996 model was not among the recalled Camrys, which include those manufactured between 2007 and 2010. Nevertheless, Schafer said the Lee case is worth pursuing.
“You can't just let it go, because we don't know how wide this recall is going to end up being,” he said. “This may be able to provide a piece of the puzzle to explain what was previously an inexplicable case.”
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration issued a limited recall of the 1996 Camry that year for cruise control systems that “fail to hold the speed set by the driver and can accelerate above the intended set speed.” It is unclear whether the Camry involved in the accident was one of those recalled under that order.
Koua Fong Lee testified at his trial in 2007 that he was returning home from a church event on the day of the accident. His pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, his father and his brother were in the car with him.
He had no criminal history and had not been drinking or on drugs. He said he was not talking on a cell phone or distracted by anything else.
The brakes 'did not work'
But as he pulled off the freeway, something suddenly went wrong.
“I stepped on my brakes. For some reason, the brakes did not work,” he testified. “And then I was very afraid. I began to think that my family is all in this car and I was worried I was going to crash into the other vehicles.”
Both the prosecutors and Koua Fong Lee's trial attorney, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, said that it appeared the defendant accidentally stepped on the accelerator rather than the brake.
A city mechanic who inspected the car testified that he found no problems with the brakes. A much shorter portion of his testimony centered on the accelerator; mechanic Michael Churchich said the throttle was stuck open about 15 to 20 percent. He speculated that could have been caused by the impact of the crash itself.
Police told Koua Fong Lee shortly after the accident about Churchich's inspection results.
“Are you guys 100 percent sure about the brakes?” he responded.
Schafer said that justice may require Koua Fong Lee be freed.
“I intend to do what I can to examine what I can do to get him out of prison,” Schafer said. “It was one of the most unexplainable cases I've ever seen.”
Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that Toyota faces at least 41 class-action lawsuits over the unintended acceleration problems.
This report includes information from the Associated Press. Emily Gurnon is a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and can be reached at 651-228-5522.