Witnesses testify for man convicted in Toyota crash

Koua Fong Lee rally
Organizers estimate more than 100 people came to demonstrate outside the hearing at the Ramsey County courthouse to decide whether to grant Koua Fong Lee a new trial. Lee is serving eight-years for the 2006 crash that killed three people.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Attorneys for a St. Paul man seeking a new trial to overturn his criminal vehicular homicide conviction called on several witnesses Monday who also claim to have experienced acceleration problems with their Toyota Camrys.

Koua Fong Lee, 32, has insisted that his 1996 Camry experienced "sudden unintended acceleration" when he rammed another car in 2006, killing three people. He said it's the same problem for which millions of other Toyotas have since been recalled.

So far, three others who said they've experienced similar problems with their Camrys have testified in a hearing before the Ramsey County judge who will decide whether Lee should get a new trial.

Lee has maintained that he tried to stop the car. While his car wasn't subject to the recent recalls Toyota made for sudden acceleration problems, defense attorneys Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard are trying to show that Lee's car malfunctioned and caused the crash.

"We have evidence that a jury probably would have said, 'hey he's telling the truth. Others have experienced it,'" Hilliard said. "Lee did everything he could to stop the car."

In addition to the three who spoke Monday morning, Lee's attorneys said they plan to present up to nine other witnesses.

Koua Fong Lee
Koua Fong Lee wipes his eye as he is interviewed Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 at the state prison in Lino Lakes, Minn., where he is serving a sentence for a fatal accident involving his 1996 Toyota Camry in June 2006 in St. Paul, Minn., that killed three people. With recent revelations of safety problems with later-model Toyotas, Lee is pressing to get his case reopened and his freedom restored.
AP Photo/Jeff Baenen

Kurt Thompson, of Stillwater, said his 1995 Camry accelerated unexpectedly in August 2009, causing him to crash into a stopped car at an intersection. It happened after Thompson had lifted his foot off the break when leaving an intersection only to see the car suddenly accelerate to 45 mph.

Thompson tried to stop but couldn't.

"I was constantly riding the brake," he said. "I had both feet on the brake and my hands on the wheel."

No one was hurt in the crash, so unlike Lee, Thompson didn't face prison time for the crash.

Another witness, John Gathright, told of problems he had with a Camry the same year as Lee's. In 2002, Gathright was driving home from work near Richmond, Va., when he said his car "took off like a wild horse."

He was in the middle lane in stop-and-go traffic on the interstate when the car accelerated to 45 mph. He weaved in an out of traffic with his foot on the brake, but the car kept going "like a race car, like a wild bull," reaching 90 mph, he said.

"I could not control it," Gathright said.

Toyota crash
This June 10, 2006 photo shows a 1996 Camry driven by Koua Fong Lee that crashed into the back of an Oldsmobile Ciera in St. Paul, Minn. Lee said he could not stop the car. The Camry is older than those including in the recalls by Toyota for unintended acceleration problems. The crash killed three people and injured two others, all in the Oldsmobile.
AP Photo/St. Paul Pioneer Press, Thomas Whisenand

Eventually Gathright was able to shut off the ignition and drift to a stop on the shoulder.

Despite the witness accounts, Lee and his attorneys will have to explain why experts hired by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office found no signs that the car experienced unintended acceleration.

The experts' conclusions have led Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner to oppose a new trial for Lee. Gaertner declined to make any comment while the hearing is still in progress.

The hearing continues Monday afternoon with more defense witnesses called to the stand to testify.

Before the hearing, at least 100 people called for Lee's release at a rally outside the Ramsey County courthouse.

"I think the evidence that they have now on 1996 Camrys, even jurors have come forward and the victims of the family have come forward saying if we would had known this back then we never would have convicted him," said Trudy Baltazar, who organized the demonstration.

People who attended a the rally packed the hearing room early on. Lee, wearing an orange jumpsuit, observed the hearing with help from a Hmong interpreter. He is not expected to testify.

(MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.)

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