Minnesota man's quest for new trial in fatal Toyota crash turns to quality of defense

A hearing for a Minnesota man seeking a new trial in a fatal crash involving his 1996 Toyota Camry turned its focus Wednesday to whether he had effective counsel at his first trial.

Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul, is serving an eight-year prison term for vehicular homicide in a 2006 crash that killed three people.

Lee insisted at trial he had tried to brake before his car rear-ended another at high-speed on a freeway exit ramp, but his case didn't get a new look until Toyota's problems with sudden acceleration in newer-model cars were widely reported. His attorneys have argued that his car may have suffered from the same problem, although it was never subject to any recall.

A key argument for Lee's new attorneys has been that he didn't have good representation at trial. Despite Lee's testimony, defense attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks suggested to the jury that Lee must have been accidentally stepping on the gas — an argument Eichhorn-Hicks has since said he thought was his "best bet" with the jury.

Eichhorn-Hicks also didn't show the trial jury a letter from an inspector for Lee's insurance company who said Lee's brake lights were on at the time of the crash.

On Tuesday, Lee's attorneys called an expert witness who testified that the Camry had antilock brakes that would not have left skid marks at the crash scene.

The testimony by forensic engineer Sam Sero contradicted testimony presented during Lee's 2007 trial, when a witness for the prosecution told the jury that Lee's car did not have antilock brakes. Prosecutors said at the time that the absence of skid marks proved Lee was not braking.

But when shown a picture of Lee's car on Tuesday, Sero used a laser pointer to show the court where the ABS system was located. With antilock brakes, he "wouldn't expect to find any" skid marks, he said. One of Lee's attorneys, Bob Hilliard, said the jury never heard that Lee's car had antilock brakes.

Sero also contradicted earlier testimony about the sequence of events on the day of the crash, and he presented theories on the causes of sudden acceleration. Lee's other attorney, Brent Schafer, said after the hearing that Sero's testimony raises issues that should have been presented to the jury during Lee's original trial.

"A lot of information ... could have helped his case," Schafer said.

Prosecutors argue the defense hasn't come up with the kind of decisive new evidence Minnesota law requires for a new trial. Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith will decide after the hearing.

Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant with only about a year of driving experience, was driving his family home from church on June 10, 2006, when their Camry zoomed up an Interstate 94 exit ramp in St. Paul. Police said it was traveling between 70 and 90 mph when it rear-ended an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light.

Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died at the scene. Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted. Two others were severely injured.