The brakes aren’t working,” Koua Lee yelled to his frightened family. He was driving home from his Minneapolis church with his father, his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter and his brother. As Lee tells it, he slammed his foot harder on the brake pedal but his car, a 1996 Toyota Camry, only sped faster toward the cars ahead of him idling at a red light. He shouted again-“The brakes aren’t working”-before hitting an Oldsmobile at an estimated 75 to 90 mph and killing two people.
Lee, 32, a Hmong immigrant who was studying for his high school equivalency at the time, still vividly remembers that awful Saturday in June 2006. Though he and his family escaped serious injury, passengers in the car he struck weren’t so lucky: Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his son Javis Jr., 10, died instantly, while Adams’ then-6-year-old niece Devyn Bolton was left a quadriplegic for 16 months before dying of her injuries. In October 2007 Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years, though he has always maintained his innocence.
Now, after serving almost 2½ years, Lee may have reason to hope. In early February his lawyer Brent Schafer told him about the 6 million Toyotas being recalled due to faulty brakes and accelerators (see box). With 52 deaths linked to recalled models, the world’s largest automaker has a publicity nightmare on its hands, but Koua Lee, who immigrated from a refugee camp in Thailand in 2004, has at last a possible path back to freedom. “To right a wrong like this, to get an innocent man out of jail is a dream,” says Schafer. “The day I can walk him out to his family will be a great day.”
Schafer plans to meet with the Ramsey County, Minn., prosecutors to have the case reopened in light of new evidence. The original prosecutor on the case-and even several jurors who voted to convict Lee-support having the Camry, still held by St. Paul police, reexamined. “We don’t want to have an innocent man in prison,” says Phil Carruthers, director of the prosecution division. (A Toyota spokesman had no comment on the case.) Lee is moved by the fact that the relatives of the victims are behind him. “More than anything else, I want to know what happened,” says Bridgette Trice, 40, whose daughter Devyn was the youngest of four. She’s considering a lawsuit against Toyota. “If this wasn’t Mr. Lee’s fault, he needs to be able to go home to his family. We want justice to be served, for his family and ours.”
But a new trial isn’t guaranteed. For one thing, the 1996 Camry isn’t included in the recent recall. “You can’t just say, ‘It happened in a lot of cars so it happened in this one too,'” says Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “You require proof that acceleration was the cause.” Still, if an inspection shows the accelerator is faulty, “that’s a new trial right there,” says Jack King, a spokesman with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Lee longs to return to his wife, Panghoua Moua, 24, who is studying nutrition and accounting at a local college and raising their four young children. “I’m very thankful that the victims’ family understands. I’d like them to know that I wish this never happened,” says Lee. Tearing up, he adds, “I want to let everyone know that it was not my intention to come here and be in a situation with three lives lost. If I had known this was going to happen, I’d have rather stayed in the refugee camp.”