ST. PAUL, Minn. - Koua Fong Lee dreamed of life outside prison, of returning to the family he left when a jury didn't believe he tried to stop his Toyota from speeding up a highway ramp and a judge sentenced him to eight years for the ensuing crash that killed three people.
On Thursday, Lee fought back tears, suddenly a free man after the same judge ruled new evidence and a shoddy defense entitled him to a new trial. The county prosecutor agreed, and said she wouldn't bring charges again.
"It's not a dream. It's true," Lee said, as his wife, Panghoua Moua, buried her head in his shoulder. "When we are asleep in the cell, sometimes I dream and I wake up in the little room, still in the little room. But now my dream come true."
Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp in 2004, was driving a Toyota Camry when it plowed at high speed into the back of an Oldsmobile as Lee exited a St. Paul freeway ramp in 2006. He insisted during his trial that he did everything he could to stop the car but couldn't.
Jurors weren't convinced and Lee's own attorney suggested his client might have accidentally stepped on the accelerator.
But Lee sought a new trial this spring in the wake of Toyota's widely publicized problems with sudden acceleration in some newer models. Even though his 1996 Camry never had been recalled, Lee was granted a hearing.
Prosecutors opposed a new trial, arguing Lee hadn't offered conclusive new evidence in the case. But after the judge's ruling, County Attorney Susan Gaertner conceded Lee's team had shown his trial attorney was "ineffective."
"I think it's time to bring this very sad situation to a close," Gaertner said.
Lee and Moua have four children, ages 8, 5, 3 and 2, and Moua said her husband barely knows the youngest two because of his time in prison. Changing that was Lee's first intention, he said.
"It's a long time, very long time, and they don't know me. I want to know them, who I am, I am their daddy," he said.
During four days of testimony this week, Lee's attorneys didn't prove his car had a sudden acceleration problem. But they argued evidence backed up Lee's account he was trying to brake. They also argued his defense attorney did a poor job. And they called a parade of witnesses who testified they had sudden-acceleration experiences in Toyotas similar to Lee's.
Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith — who presided over Lee's original trial and had sentenced him to the maximum — said if that testimony from the other Toyota drivers had been introduced then, it would "more likely than not, or probably, or even almost certainly" have resulted in a different verdict for Lee.
Smith also said Lee's limited English was a factor in her conclusion, as well as the work of his defense attorney.
"There were multiple errors and omissions by his attorney that necessitate this result," Smith said.
Lee's release capped a dramatic day during which he earlier rejected prosecutors' offer to set him free and vacate his sentence. But that offer had included several conditions, including a stayed remainder of his sentence that meant he could face prison for a new violation in the future.
Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died in the 2006 accident. 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.
Bridgette Trice, Devyn Bolton's mother, welcomed Thursday's ruling. The victim's families had supported Lee's effort for a new trial, but Trice was crying outside the courthouse as she spoke to reporters.
"I'm happy for him but I'm still sad for us, cause he's going back to his but ours are never coming back to us," Trice said.
Lee said he wanted the victims' families to know he didn't intend to cause the accident.
"I want them to know that I will pray for them and I also want to ask them to forgive me and to believe me," he said.