A Minnesota miscarriage of justice

Three years ago Koua Fong Lee killed three Minnesotans when he rammed his 1996 Toyota Camry into the rear of another car at the Snelling Avenue exit of Interstate Highway 94 in St. Paul. Lee careened into the other car at 90 miles per hour and was, not unreasonably, convicted of criminal vehicular homicide.
Lee’s particular Toyota model was never part of the controversy over the alleged unintended acceleration of certain models of Toyota cars. The trial judge nevertheless granted Lee a new trial after the Toyota controversy seemed to lend some credibility to Lee’s account of how the accident happened. The Ramsey County Attorney gave up on the case. Lee is now a free man.
St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario celebrated Lee’s vindication this past August in “Justice gets help from reporter, not lawyers entrusted with it.” The evidence against Lee had included the fact that there were no skid marks at the scene of the accident. According to Rosario, “One of the most glaring prosecutorial missteps in all of this was pushing the theory that Lee did not step on the brake because there was a lack of long skid marks at the accident scene. Of course, the new evidence underlined that Lee’s car had anti-lock brakes, which don’t leave skid marks when applied.”
Now the lawyers who represented Lee are to receive an award from the Innocence Project of Minnesota at a gala on October 7. Yesterday they were the subject of a glowing profile in the Star Tribune.
To this day we do not know why Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner threw in the towel on the case. The glowing press Lee’s release has received and the award to Lee’s attorneys to the contrary notwithstanding, Lee’s freedom represents a miscarriage of justice. The estimable science reporter Michael Fumento turned his attention to the case in “License to kill.” Here is Fumento’s column:

The “Toyota defense” just sprung a killer from prison. Ironically, it did so just days after a whistleblower revealed that the government was sitting on powerful evidence undercutting the whole “the throttle made me do it” excuse.
Four years ago, Koua Fong Lee sped down a St. Paul, Minn., freeway off ramp at between 70 and 90 mph in his 1996 Camry. He struck two vehicles waiting at a stop light–instantly killing Javis Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Jr. Another passenger, 6-year-old Devyn Bolton, was left paraplegic and later died from her injuries.
Lee claimed that he was “stepping on the brakes as hard as possible,” but mechanical engineers examined the car on behalf of both the state and the defense–and, according to the prosecutor, both found the brakes were operating and there were no problems with the accelerator. Plus, there were no skid marks.
This photo [to the left] of my own accident site shows that anti-lock brakes very much do leave skid marks–but only if you really use the brakes.
Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. But ultimately he served only 2½.
His lawyers used the recent hysteria over “sudden unanticipated acceleration” in some Toyota models to get a judge to order a new trial–and prosecutors, eyeing a media nightmare, opted to just let him go. Never mind that no Toyota recall related to sudden unintended acceleration concerned pre-2000 models like Lee’s.
His lawyers had an “expert witness” testify there were no skid marks because Lee’s Camry had anti-lock brakes. Yet when my own car equipped with such brakes shot off a Pacific Coast Highway cliff back in 1993 it left skid marks visible for years. In fact, anti-lock brakes merely reduce the length of the marks by about a tenth.
They also rounded up testimony from 10 other people who claimed to have had runaway experiences in a 1996 Camry. But that proves nothing–because such complaints are rampant.
I found more than 2,000 sudden-acceleration complaints about 1996-model vehicles in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records through yesterday–yet only 86 concerned any Toyota. That’s versus 294 for the Dodge Caravan alone. In fact, NHTSA has gotten 1,800-plus such complaints from non-Toyota owners just this year.
No matter: The testimony was enough to get Lee out of jail free.
Maybe it wouldn’t have–if the NHTSA hadn’t been keeping that report, which a retired NHTSA official exposed–covered up. Still, that whistle-blowing is probably what led to NHTSA’s briefing of Congress on August 10th showing that, at the very least, driver error has been a major factor in accidents blamed on Toyota sudden acceleration.
Analyzing the “black box” data recorders in 58 Toyotas that allegedly crashed because of sudden acceleration, the agency said it found that in 35 cases no brake was applied. In 14, there was partial braking–usually just before the crash. Only one incident involved a case of pedal entrapment. That’s the one from last August in which four people died in a Lexus after a floor mat from the wrong type of vehicle–that therefore couldn’t be fastened–slid under the throttle.
Fact is, if NHTSA weren’t so concerned with being unfair to Toyota in order to look like it was being fair to Toyota, it might have ended the hysteria long ago by clearing up media-promoted misconceptions. For starters, as I’ve reported in Forbes, it should explain that its so-called “complaint database” is actually just a collection of anecdotes: Anybody can enter anything they want about any vehicle.
For example, the official database includes an entry that I made to prove the point: It tells of a vehicle that, due to a child-seat problem, accelerated to 999 mph and went to the moon.
The NHTSA plays to the media by regularly “reporting” the number of deaths allegedly linked to Toyota sudden-acceleration, now up to 93, without pointing out that many claims are plainly absurd. Ten deaths, for example, were originally blamed on other aspects of the cars–but later simply changed to unintended acceleration. In one, the driver is charged with being drunk as a skunk when he killed his best friend. Many “claims” aren’t complaints but are merely comments.
I even found three death claims in which the accidents never happened. In one, a poor guy was allegedly tugging at his floor mat to release the throttle. But the police have no record of it.
Research shows driver error contributes to over 99 percent of all car accidents–but naturally lots of people prefer to believe otherwise. In fact, many of the Toyota “alleged death” entries actually admit that investigators concluded driver error was at fault–but the person making the entry feels that unintended acceleration was obviously the real cause.
Readers may be shocked to hear that of those 93 alleged deaths, the NHTSA officially gives credence to only five–four in one accident. It’s time for the NHTSA to explain why.

For some reason, Fumento’s column — originally published in the New York Post this past August — has not seen the light of day in the Twin Cities media. There’s a story or two here that deserves investigation, but they are not the ones we’ll be reading about for the foreseeable future.

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