Attorneys hope inspection overturns conviction of Koua Fong Lee

1:44 PM, Apr 21, 2010   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Inspectors spent Tuesday looking over a 1996 Toyota Camry that was involved in a fatal crash four years ago.

The car's driver, Koua Fong Lee, 32, is trying to get a new trial in the wake of Toyota's recent recalls over sudden acceleration problems.

"I think we're going to have some engineering evidence by the end of this inspection that is going to support Mr. Lee's contention he was on the brake," said Brent Schafer, one of Lee's attorneys.

The two-day inspection, which started at 8 a.m. Tuesday, is taking place at the St. Paul Police Department's impound lot.  Sixteen people are approved to be there, including inspectors and attorneys representing Lee, Toyota, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office and the victims' family.

The police department used tape to create three circles around the car.  Only inspectors for the prosecution and defendant are allowed inside the first circle, Schafer said.  They're the only ones allowed to touch the car.

Toyota's representatives are allowed inside the second circle, but they cannot touch the car.  Other attorneys and representatives must stand beyond the second circle, Schafer said.

A St. Paul Police commander is overseeing the inspection and moderating any disputes that surface, said St. Paul Police Sgt. Pete Crum.

Lee is serving an eight-year prison sentence for criminal vehicular homicide.  He was driving his family home from church in 2006 when his '96 Camry crashed into another car, ultimately killing three people.

Lee has always insisted he stepped on the brake, but it didn't work.  An inspection before his trial found nothing wrong with the brakes and a jury found him guilty in 2007.

But after Toyota recalled millions of vehicles over concerns about unintended acceleration, Lee's attorneys asked for a new trial.  Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner has not agreed to a new trial but did agree to have the car inspected again.

The '96 Camry is not a part of Toyota's recent recalls and its acceleration system is designed differently.  However, the federal government has received several complaints about sudden acceleration problems with the '96 Camry.

Lee's attorney filed a motion last month requesting a new trial.  They presented the court with affidavits from about two dozen drivers who have experienced similar problems with late-model Toyotas.

"It is our firm belief that Mr. Lee did everything he could to stop his car that day, and that the well-documented problems with his Toyota are the true culprit here," said Robert Hilliard, Lee's other attorney.  "Once the results of this inspection are known, we hope Mr. Lee will be quickly granted a new trial so a jury can hear all of the facts of this case."

Prosecutors want to complete the inspection before responding to Lee's request for a new trial.

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