In Lee's and others' stories, exhibit shows power of unexpected events

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Koua Fong Lee
Petronella Ytsma's photograph of Koua Fong Lee is featured in "The Value of One Life" exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A photo exhibit that opened this week at the Minnesota History Center features Minnesotans who've survived serious illnesses, deadly accidents, even the Holocaust.

One of the eight people featured in "The Value of One Life" is Koua Fong Lee, the St. Paul man who spent more than 2 1/2 years in prison on a conviction of criminal vehicular homicide. His Toyota Camry was involved in an accident that killed three people and left two others injured.

In the wake of Toyota's problems with sudden acceleration, Lee was granted a new trial -- and then freed last August. The show is more attention for a man who is still adjusting to life as a free man.

The exhibit was conceived by artist and University of Minnesota emeritus professor Dr. Robert Fisch, who survived the Holocaust, and photographed by Petronella Ytsma.

The idea behind the show is to spotlight how unexpected events have the power to forever alter the course of a person's life.

The exhibit displays eight photo portraits, along with interview excerpts. Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer, said they asked each subject two questions:

Koua Fong Lee
Koua Fong Lee embraces his wife, Panghoua Moua, outside of the Ramsey County jail, moments after learning that Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner would not seek a new case against Lee. Lee had spent more than three years in jail after he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after a 2006 crash, in which he hit three other cars stopped at a red light.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"One, tell us what happened to you in your life, and second, tell us what brings you joy today," Roberts said.

Each story was different, but they all shared something in common: Each person expressed gratitude for how their lives had turned out. Roberts said Koua Fong Lee was included because even though he survived his accident -- which left three people dead -- it also left its mark on Lee.

"He can't change the past and he talks about that quite honestly," said Roberts. "But at the same time he's on his own journey and I think that's worth exploring, too."

In halting English, Koua Fong Lee said it's still hard to believe he is free. He lies awake at night asking the same questions he asked when he was behind bars.

"Until this day, I still think, why did this happen to me on that day and why were three people killed because of the car that I drive, and why did they put me in prison far away from my children, and my family has suffered from all of this a lot," said Lee. "I think about that every day."

Robert Fisch
Petronella Ytsma's photograph of Robert Fisch is featured in "The Value of One Life" exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Fisch is a Minnesota pediatrician, visual artist and Holocaust survivor. The exhibit showcases him as someone who overcame catastrophic life circumstances to reach joy and success.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Lee continues to look for meaning in his faith.

"Because I am a Christian and I read the Bible, and I use the Bible to apply to my life," said Lee. "And every day when I was in prison I think a lot about my family and how my family will survive for eight years and I suffer every day and I cannot sleep and sometimes I think I cannot find any joy but I use the Bible to read and apply to my life. Even though I suffer I try my best to be strong."

Lee is not working. He's in therapy to deal with the accident, and along with victims' families, Lee is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Toyota.

Lee's attorney Brent Schafer acknowledges that the inclusion of Lee in the exhibit could attract new attention to Lee's case, but he says he sees it mostly as recognition for Lee's personal story.

"A young child in Laos spending 20-some years in a Thai refugee camp, getting the blessing to travel to the United States of America and begin a new life and then shortly thereafter, having that good fortune taken away from him," said Schafer. "And I think it's not only his survival of being in prison due to the Toyota accident but I'm hoping that it's a larger picture of what he has gone through and represents what his culture, the Hmong culture, have gone through just to get to the United States."

Schafer and the other attorneys in the suit will preside over an inspection of Lee's Camry later this week. The lawsuit maintains that problems with Lee's Toyota caused the accident. Toyota has called the claims against the company baseless.

The "Value of One Life" show is on view until April 10.