As Toyota ramps up car safety and quality after widespread reports of sudden acceleration, Minnesota must work just as hard to improve a justice system that malfunctioned after a 2006 fatal crash that put a St. Paul man behind bars unjustly. So far, not enough progress has been made.
Koua Fong Lee, a 32-year-old father of four, walked out of jail last summer after a heroic pair of volunteer lawyers persuaded a Ramsey County judge to grant his request for a new trial, citing ineffective counsel and new evidence about Toyota defects. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner decided not to retry Lee.
Lee's trial for the June 2006 crash that killed three members of a St. Paul family happened before publicity about Toyota's sudden acceleration issues. He didn't have drugs or alcohol in his system and claimed he had tried to stop his 1996 Camry. Without any plausible explanation for the runaway car, a jury concluded that Lee had accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake. He was convicted of gross negligence -- a harsh judgment for what appeared to be a mistake. The judge then handed down an eight-year sentence, far lengthier than given to many drunken drivers who have caused multiple fatalities.
Lee is back in the news because he's suing Toyota for injuries and distress caused by the crash and the time spent in prison. The lawsuit should also put a spotlight back on the legal system weaknesses that became evident in Lee's ordeal. Priorities include:
• Sentencing guidelines reform. Judges in Minnesota have too much discretion in giving consecutive sentences vs. concurrent sentences (under which Lee would have served the two terms at the same time, cutting his prison time in half). Clarification is needed to prevent sentencing disparities. Concurrent sentences should be presumed for cases like Lee's in which a single act has caused multiple deaths. Judges should have to provide an explanation if they go the consecutive route. The respected Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has discussed concerns raised by Lee's case but has not made changes. Minnesota's next governor will soon appoint eight new members to the group. Addressing this flaw in a system considered a model for other states should be a priority.
• Establish a middle-ground careless-driving charge. Prosecutors have two choices for charging out accidents like Lee's. There's the felony criminal vehicular homicide charge, which can be difficult to prove. Their only other option: careless driving, the equivalent of running a stop sign. It's too big a gap. A gross misdemeanor charge, which could lead to a one-year jail sentence, is needed. The Minnesota County Attorneys Association will likely press for this change in the upcoming legislative session. Lawmakers should heed their concerns and act quickly.
• Continue expert witness fee assistance. Lawmakers facing a yawning budget deficit will be tempted to jettison this program. They shouldn't. Lee's unjust imprisonment could have been avoided had his original attorney petitioned for public assistance to hire a mechanical expert to rebut the county attorney's expert witness. The prosecutor's expert made a serious mistake that never was corrected. That mistake very likely played a role in Lee's conviction. Lawmakers should consider Lee's plight and wield the budget ax sparingly on this program.