Koua Fong Lee immigrated to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 2004. Three years later 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’s car careened into the other car somewhere between 70 and 90 miles per hour and Lee was, not unreasonably, convicted of negligent vehicular homicide.
Lee’s particular Toyota model was never part of the controversy over the alleged unintended acceleration of certain models of Toyota cars. No mechanical problem was found with the car after the accident. The trial judge nevertheless granted Lee a new trial on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel after the Toyota controversy seemed to lend some credibility to Lee’s account of how the accident happened.
The decision whether or not to retry the case rested solely with then Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner; Gaertner declined to prosecute the case again. (Gaertner now practices law at the Gray Plant Mooty firm in Minneapolis.) Lee is now free once more to drive the city streets.
Unbelievably, to my knowledge, I am the only media type to have asked Gaertner for public consumption why she threw in the towel on the case. In comments she made about the case before a local lawyers’ group in October 2011, Gaertner made it clear how much she disliked being asked around town about Lee’s eight-year sentence (a sentence the prosecutor had requested after Lee’s conviction). Wasn’t the sentence too harsh?
Prosecuting crimes can really be a bitch; it may not always be the best way to win friends and influence people.
Gaertner said she stood behind the case she originally brought against Lee. She deliberated over it for a year after the accident and took heat about the delay from the local chapter of the NAACP. The deceased victims of Lee’s negligence were all black: the black driver and his ten-year old son were killed in the crash while his seven-year-old niece later died a horrible, lingering death. In her comments Gaertner also said the state legislature should revisit or clarify the law against negligent vehicular homicide.
In response to my question asking why she threw in the towel on the case, Gaertner cited the difficulty of empaneling a jury that could fairly adjudicate the case as well as the loss of community support for additional punishment of Lee.
Michael Fumento exposed the absurdity of Lee’s exculpatory claims in an excellent New York Post column. For some reason Fumento’s analysis has never seen the light of day in the local Twin Cities media.
A free man, Lee set out in pursuit of the American dream. Lee and his family filed a product liability lawsuit against Toyota in federal district court in St. Paul. In the lawsuit Lee alleges that Toyota is responsible for the problems flowing from his conviction and punishment.
Lee alleges that he required psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of both the accident and his imprisonment and that he now requires sleep medication. In March of this year Judge Ann Montgomery ruled that the Lee et al. can proceed with their claims against Toyota for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
You may recall that in 2012 federal investigators found no evidence of sudden acceleration by Toyota automobiles resulting from electronic failures and that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration found the “vast majority” of cases of unintended acceleration were actually due to what NHTSA called “pedal misapplication” — stepping on the gas instead of the brake, or in addition to the brake. (In his New York Post column, Fumento had revealed that NHTSA was sitting on this finding.)
This week Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin profiled Lee upon his graduation from Inver Hills Community College in suburban St. Paul. It’s a feel-good column of the kind that can write itself in about 15 minutes.
Tevlin adds this kicker to his formulaic column: “The Legislature passed a bill this session that would compensate people such as Lee, who served time behind bars after being wrongly convicted.” If you get your news from the Star Tribune, you would have no idea of the underlying farce.
Tevlin does not pause to note Lee’s pending lawsuit against Toyota. If Lee collects both from Toyota and from Minnesota taxpayers, he would make himself a pioneer in the art of double dipping. And yet some cynics say the American dream is dying.
NOTE: Thanks to reader Gavin Sullivan for his tweet pointing out Tevlin’s column and reminding me of my 2012 post on the Lee case, from which this is adapted.