The day justice rolled down like water in St. Paul

10:35 PM, Aug 5, 2010   |    comments
Koua Fong Lee hugs wife Panghoua Moua
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SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- I did not put a story on the air Thursday, but it will still go down as one of the most memorable days in my reporting career.  I saw Koua Fong Lee walk free after a judge ruled he deserved a new trial in the 2006 car wreck that claimed three lives.

The 32-year-old Hmong immigrant was already crying when he left the Ramsey County jail, to greet his family, friends and supporters who had lobbied for his cause. Lee, who logged two and a half years in a federal prison, assumed he'd be free at least until a new jury rendered a new verdict in the case.

And then, as he was still thanking his attorneys and supporters for giving him another chance, the truly huge news arrived. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner had just announced to reporters at the courthouse that her office would not take the case to trial again.

I stood next to Lee, along with other reporters and photographers, as the news of Gaertner's decision arrived. For a couple of silent beats it seemed he couldn't bring himself to believe what he was hearing.

One of the attorneys, Bob Hilliard, put his hands on Lee's shoulders and leaned down toward him.

"Koua, did you hear that? She's not going to press charges!"

As people began to cheer, Lee's other attorney, Brent Schafer, punctuated the point.

"It's over! It's over! It's done!" Schafer exclaimed.

Lee's tears flowed as he his wife Panghoua Moua leapt back into his arms and hugged him even tighter.  As more tears streamed down the faces of those who surrounded Lee, I thought of the verse from the Book of Amos in the Old Testament. 

"Let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

It's the same verse the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted in his final speech in 1968.  And Thursday in Saint Paul it seemed as though a dam broke somewhere in the system, and justice gushed out onto the streets.

Lee said he often dreamed in prison that he was home with his wife and children.

"Sometimes I'd dream it, and wake up still in the little room. But now my dream has come true. My wife is here. It's not a dream." 

Lee always maintained his innocence. He always said he did everything he could to stop his 1996 Toyota Camry, when he left I-94 and plowed into an Oldsmobile sitting at the end of the exit ramp in 2006.

Javis Trice Adams, a 33-year-old man, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died in the collision.  Adams's niece, 6-year-old Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed by the impact and died 15 months later.

Anyone who saw the footage of the horrific accident, or pondered the gaping holes it left in the lives of the victims, couldn't resist feeling outraged.

It was a crash that defied logic, and people were left to draw their own conclusions about why a man with a car full of  his own loved ones -- including a pregnant wife -- would have such reckless disregard for life.

Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith became convinced the original jury that convicted Lee of vehicular homicide would've thought twice had they heard of stories of unintended sudden acceleration in similar Toyota sedans. Smith heard from many of those Toyota drivers at the evidentiary hearing in the case this week.

Judge Smith found "multiple errors and omissions" by his defense attorney in the original trial, including his decision to tell jurors Lee might have stepped on the accelerator by mistake. Smith said Lee's difficulty with the English language was also likely a factor in the way his trial ended.

Hours before Smith rendered her decision, prosecutors offered Lee a plea deal. If he would agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge he'd be sentenced to time already served, and go free immediately.  Lee would've still had a criminal record and lengthy driving restrictions under that scenario.

Had his motion for a new trial been rejected, Lee would've remained locked up in state prison through 2012.  But he decided to stay the course, and trusted Judge Smith would give him another shot at extracting justice from the legal system.

My colleague Joe Fryer has been on the Koua Fong Lee story for months, and covered every day of the hearing. It appeared the judge's ruling would come down at the exact moment Joe was expected to be doing a live report.

So photographer Monica Hanson and I were sent in to keep all the bases covered while Joe and photographer Brian Augustin were occupied by their live reports.  That's how I managed to get a front row seat to the emotion-packed developments at the courthouse.

We learned he'd be released, pending his new trial, from the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center a half mile away. Monica and I hustled over and got into position to get what would become the shot of the day.

On our way to our news truck, however, we saw members of the crash victims' families heading slowly away.  They had been there in the court room for each day of the evidentiary hearing, listening to the witnesses and opposing attorneys.

We asked if they wanted to share their thoughts about the ruling, and learned they were happy for Koua and his family. And yet their quest for the truth continues, and will play out in a civil suit against Toyota.

"I'm happy for the Lee family, that they're getting their justice,"
Devyn Bolton's mother Bridgette Trice told us, "It's just that we want answers. They're coming slowly but they're coming surely."

I caught a fleeting glimpse of a little smiling toddler on the right side of Bridgette's face. It was a picture of Devyn that Bridgette had turned into an earring.

"Yes that's my baby. She was six when she was hurt, and seven by the time she died."

Mae Adams, Javis Trice Adams' aunt, wished Koua Fong Lee and his family well.

"God intended it this way," she said, "We couldn't let this man sit in jail, no matter how much we want to know what happened. This is just the beginning. Our day will come."

Lee asked the Trice family to forgive him, and to believe he had his foot firmly on the brake pedal as his car sped out of control.

Later he told reporters he was anxious to be a father again to his four children, who range in age from two and a half to eight.

"The first thing I'm going to do is get to know my children," Lee said, "It's been a very long time and they don't know me. I want them to know what the word 'daddy' means."

Copyright 2010 by KARE. All rights reserved.

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