ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Koua Fong Lee walked out of jail shortly before 6 p.m. Thursday and broke into tears after learning that he was a free man -- for good.
Lee said he wants his four children to know what the word "daddy" means.
"It's a long time," he told reporters, with tears in his eyes. "They don't know me."
Ramsey County Judge Joanne Smith ruled Thursday afternoon that Lee should get a new trial and should be released from prison. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner then announced that her office will not seek another trial, which means the charges against Lee will be dropped.
Gaertner said Thursday she thinks it's time to bring a "very sad situation" to an end.
Lee, 32, was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide in a 2006 crash involving his 1996 Toyota Camry.
Lee insisted at trial that he had been trying to brake before the crash. He requested a new trial in the wake of Toyota Corp.'s issues with sudden unintended acceleration in newer-model cars -- even though Lee's 1996 Camry was never recalled.
"From the day he stepped out of the car, he said the brakes were not working," defense attorney Brent Schafer said in closing arguments.
The judge ruled Thursday there was new evidence to warrant a new trial. She also felt Lee's counsel during his 2007 trial was ineffective because his attorney at the time, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, argued that Lee stepped on the accelerator, even though Lee always claimed he tried to hit the brakes and they did not work.
Lee apologized to the victims' relatives Thursday night.
"It was not my intention to cause the accident," he said. "I also want to ask them to forgive me and believe me."
Relatives of the victims are happy Lee is free, but they still want to know why the brakes failed. They recently filed civil lawsuits against Toyota.
"It's a bittersweet victory," said Bridgette Trice, mother of one of the crash victims. "I'm happy for the Lee family, that they're getting their justice. We just want answers. They're coming slowly but surely."
Prosecutor Mark Lystig argued throughout the hearing that Lee was driving too fast and was unfamiliar with the car when the crash occurred. Lystig downplayed testimony about unintended acceleration from drivers of Toyota models similar to Lee's, saying their stories could be countered by tens of thousands of other Toyota drivers who experienced no such problems.
"He hit the accelerator. There's no other rational explanation," Lystig told the judge.
Earlier Thursday, Lee rejected Lystig's offer to ask the judge to vacate his sentence and free him immediately.
Schafer said the convictions would have stayed on Lee's record. Lee also would have been on probation for 15 years, putting him at risk of being imprisoned to complete his original sentence if he did anything wrong. The offer also would have banned him from having a driver's license for 10 years.
"That should tell you how he feels about what actually happened," Schafer said outside of the courtroom Thursday morning, after Lee turned down the deal. "You just saw a man turn down freedom to stay and stick with his principles."
Eichhorn-Hicks testified Wednesday that he thought the only way he could win the case was to suggest his client made a mistake, accidentally stepping on the gas instead of the brake.
Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant with only about a year of driving experience, was driving his family home from church on June 10, 2006, when their Camry zoomed up an Interstate 94 exit ramp in St. Paul. Police said it was traveling between 70 and 90 mph when it rear-ended an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light.
Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died at the scene. Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted. Two others were badly hurt.
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