Our justice system prides itself on getting justice for victims and punishing those who have committed a crime, but sometimes, the wrong man ends up paying the price.
In 2007, a father from St. Paul, Minnesota was put through years of hell after a jury decided he needed to be punished for committing a tragic crime. Over 2 years later, however, 2 lawyers figured out who the real victim was…
A Typical Sunday Morning
In 2006, a man living in St. Paul, Minnesota was driving home from church on a Sunday morning with his wife, who was pregnant at the time, their 3 other children, and his wife’s parents like he did every other Sunday.
The Usual Route
That morning, the father took the St. Paul freeway home from church and took the Snelling Avenue exit like he did every other Sunday morning after the family’s weekly church outing. However, this Sunday would not end like all the rest…
The Stop Sign
After exiting eastbound Interstate 94, the father, a Hmong immigrant who had relocated to Minnesota with the rest of his family, was driving along the off-ramp and started to brake to slow the car down when he saw 2 other cars stopped at an intersection.
‘Brakes Not Working’
However, when the man stepped down on his brake pedal, the car failed to slow down. Instead of slowing down, the car actually felt as if it were accelerating. “Brakes not working,” the dad repeatedly shouted at the car zoomed toward the intersection…
Koua Fong Lee pressed down as hard as he could on the brake pedal of his 1996 Toyota Camry, but it didn’t do anything to slow the car down. When he finally reached the intersection, the car was out of control and slammed into 2 cars.
A Deadly Accident
Koua’s Camry ended up crashing into the back of a 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera, which ended up killing the driver, Javis Trice-Adams, and his son, 6-year-old Javis Jr. Javis’ 6-year-old niece was also in the car and was paralyzed in the crash. She tragically died about a year later from injuries she sustained in the accident…
An Unbelievable Excuse
Javis’ father and daughter were also in the car at the time of the crash and were severely injured but managed to survive. In addition, Koua’s family were also injured from the impact of the crash. When police arrived Koua insisted he had pressed the brakes but police didn’t believe him.
As a result of the deadly crash, Koua was charged with vehicular homicide and went to court in 2007. He never changed his story about what happened in the moments before the accident, but the prosecution argued he accidentally pressed on the accelerator…
Despite Koua repeatedly testifying that he only stepped on the brake pedal before rear-ending the Oldsmobile at around 90 miles per hour, his own lawyer, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, told the jury that he must have stepped on the accelerator.
The Jury’s Decision
At the end of the trial over the tragic accident in 2007, the jury found Koua guilty and convicted him of vehicular homicide and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Even after being sent to prison, however, Koua still insisted he had done everything in his power to stop the car and only stepped on the brake pedal…
2 Years Later…
About 2 years into his 8-year sentence, Toyota disclosed that some of their cars had experienced acceleration issues. With the help of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, attorneys Brent Shafer and Bob Hilliard took on Koua’s case to see if a car malfunction was behind the accident.
A Thorough Investigation
Koua’s new attorneys had the car inspected, which his original lawyer never did, and found evidence that the car’s cruise control may have jammed the throttle into an open position. “If the cruise control was working properly, it would allow the brakes to take over and the car to stop,” said Hilliard…
“We see a mechanical device that appears to stick open and therefore keeps the throttle from closing,” Hilliard added. They also found evidence from the brake light filament proving the brake pedal was being pressed at the time of the crash.
The New Argument
“It means that Mr. Lee had his foot on the brake as he testified,” said Hilliard. “There is enough evidence now to support a new trial,” he added. While petitioning for a new trial, Hilliard argued that Koua’s car had malfunctioned like the millions of Toyotas that were recalled after the accident…
A Second Chance
Hilliard also presented 50 affidavits from other Toyota drivers who claimed to have experienced the same accelerating issue and argued that Koua’s original attorney botched the case. After hearing the evidence, the judge ordered a new trial.
The First Moments Of Freedom
After serving 2.5 years of his sentence, Koua was released from prison on August 5, 2010, in preparation for the new trial. He was overcome with emotion when he finally got to hold his wife’s hands again, which is something he often dreamed about while wrongfully imprisoned…
A Dream Come True
“Sometimes, when I was sleeping in the cot, I dreamed (I was at home), and then I woke up still in the little room,” Koua explained. “But now, my dream has come true.” Less than an hour later, Koua got even more good news.
While talking to the press, Koua found out that the judge vacated his convictions after the prosecution announced they would not appeal the judge’s decision or retry Houa for the charges. “It’s over,” the attorney’s told Koua. “It’s over…”
Making Up For Lost Time
When asked what he was looking forward to the most as a free man, Koua said all he wanted was to make up for the time he lost with his children, now 2,3,5, and 8 years old.”The first thing I’m going to do is talk to them, to get to know them, to play with them,” Koua said. “I want them to know I am their daddy. I will teach them what the word daddy means.”
Justice Is Finally Served
After his release from prison, Koua joined a civil suit against Toyota that was started by a victim’s family member. After the 2015 trial, a jury found that Toyota was 60 percent at fault for the deadly crash while Koua was only 40 percent at fault and awarded Koua and the other crash victims $11.4 million. “I am very happy with the results. At the beginning, Toyota had blamed me. I want people around the world to see and to know that I was pressing the brakes, not the gas,” Koua said.
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