Published November 20, 2014
Two experts hired by prosecutors have challenged defense assertions about what led to a crash involving a Toyota that killed three people in St. Paul and sent the driver to prison.
The experts prepared separate reports for the Ramsey County attorney's office, which has until late Wednesday afternoon to file its response to a motion for a new trial by Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul, who is serving an eight-year sentence for criminal vehicular homicide.
Lee's crash is among a growing number of cases, some long resolved, getting new attention after Toyota began large-scale recalls of newer model cars due to problems with sudden unintended acceleration. His attorney, Brent Schafer, has filed affidavits from more than three dozen people who described experiencing sudden acceleration in their older Toyotas.
But both the prosecutors' experts concluded there was no evidence Lee's 1996 Camry experienced sudden unintended acceleration, and they said if Lee had firmly hit the brakes, as he has always claimed, he would have slowed down.
Attorneys for Lee and the victims' families said Tuesday the reports show prosecutors are struggling to justify Lee's conviction.
Phil Carruthers, a prosecutor who helped convict Lee, said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner hasn't yet signed off on her office's response to Lee's motion for a new trial but has decided on her position. He would not say what that was.
"The experts, they did a very thorough job," Carruthers said. "Their reports were very detailed. We asked them to be as objective and independent and careful as possible. They did a very careful job of inspecting the vehicle from top to bottom and of course did not find anything with the vehicle that would explain the crash."
But Carruthers said he found it significant that the engineers concluded that that even if the throttle was stuck open, as might have happened with sudden acceleration, the brakes should have stopped or at least slowed the car.
Lee insists he did everything he could to stop as his Camry raced up a freeway exit ramp at about 80 to 90 mph and slammed into an Oldsmobile in 2006. He has said he always presumed there was a problem with the brakes until news emerged of Toyota's safety problems. The prosecution argued during Lee's trial that he must have hit the gas rather than the brakes. Inspections after the crash and in April found no evidence of brake failure.
Schafer said he expects Judge Joanne Smith will soon schedule a hearing to take testimony and decide whether the new evidence warrants a retrial.
The prosecution's engineering consultants, Frank C. Sonye, of Rochester Hills, Mich., and Wade Bartlett, of Rochester, N.H., participated in an April 20-21 inspection of the Toyota wreckage at the St. Paul police impound lot. Experts for the defense, the victims' families and Toyota also participated.
Toyota's outside inspector drew similar conclusions as the prosecution's experts.
The prosecution experts discounted the significance of a finding — highlighted by defense experts earlier — that the left brake lights were lit at the time of the crash because the hot filaments exploded instead of merely shattering, as they would have if they had been cold.
Sonye wrote that the evidence doesn't show how long the brakes had been applied.
"The brakes may have been applied very late in the scenario (just prior to impact)," he wrote, adding that the sudden slowing from the crash could have "caused the brake pedal to move forward sufficiently to turn on the brake lights."
Schafer said that assertion shows the prosecution is searching hard for any explanations it can find to preserve the jury's guilty verdict. He said the most important new evidence in Lee's favor may be all the statements he's gathered from people who experienced sudden acceleration in their Toyotas.
"It's becoming more clear too me that there are very little if any fingerprints left when this happens," he said. "People have this happen and they keep their car and it never happens again."
But Bartlett, who reviewed 23 of those affidavits, downplayed their significance.
"I do not believe this sample size is meaningful, nor do these unsubstantiated stories have any probative value with respect to the events that transpired in Mr. Lee's car just prior to the crash," he wrote.
Mike Padden, a lawyer for the victims' families, who are suing Toyota and believe Lee is innocent, said the prosecution experts had offered some "preposterous" scenarios.
"It think it's obvious they don't want to slap the hand that feeds them and admit the obvious," Padden said. "This issue is a real problem for them and they know it."