In Koua Fong Lee case, justice delayed was justice denied

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2010 - 7:33 AM
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Koua Fong Lee and lawyer Robert Hilliard

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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On Thursday afternoon, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner stood in front of the courthouse in St. Paul and delivered this message just before Koua Fong Lee was released from prison:

"I believe the system worked, and this is a very good day for the criminal justice system."

Trudy Baltazar, an administrative assistant at 3M who had been so moved by Lee's plight that she had organized demonstrations in his support, was not far away, and had this response to Gaertner.

"Yeah, right," she said. "What system, exactly, is she talking about?"

Baltazar, who had never attended a protest until she got involved in Lee's case, had spent the week before making signs at her Cottage Grove home. Her husband, Lupe, cut the wood. Baltazar made copies of the protest messages at Kinko's, then stapled them to cardboard and put them on the sticks. She wrapped each handle with duct tape so that no one would get slivers.

Then, as she did each day of Lee's hearing, Baltazar went down the courthouse and prayed.

"I prayed every two hours that somebody would finally do the right thing," she said.

Miraculously, someone did.

District Judge Joanne Smith declared that enough new evidence had been presented to justify a new trial for Lee, convicted almost three years ago of driving so recklessly that he killed three people. Lee, who was sentenced to eight years in prison, said all along that he tried in vain to step on the brake and stop the runaway Toyota Camry. But his case was so botched by his first attorney that he was convicted.

Despite mounting evidence -- witness after witness who testified to experiencing the same acceleration problems, in the same kind of car -- that Lee was telling the truth, Gaertner fought the case right up until it seemed ludicrous to go on. Gaertner had to know by then that she could not in good faith bring the case to trial again, yet she offered Lee a deal that in retrospect seems almost cruel: Lee could go home that day if he accepted his conviction.

Fortunately, Lee told Gaertner where to go.

Gaertner then announced that "enough was enough," and ended a fiasco that had kept a man from his wife and children for almost three years.

The system worked?'

"The system did not work," said Baltazar. "It took two lawyers from Texas and a judge who had the courage and humility to admit everyone, including herself, made mistakes."

When it became clear that Lee would go home, someone ran to Sears to buy him new clothes, said Erika Applebaum, executive director for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, whose volunteers helped by interviewing witnesses in the case. The clothes were too big, and he had to borrow a belt to keep his pants up for the news conference. Afterward, the Lee family, his attorneys and supporters retreated to the Crowne Plaza hotel for a meal of fried fish, sausage and sticky rice, his favorite.

During his stays in Minnesota prisons, from Lino Lakes to Faribault, Stillwater and St. Cloud, Lee had to wait in long lines in order to phone his wife, Panghoua Moua . So his lawyer, Robert Hilliard, took him shopping and bought Lee a new iPhone. "I said, go ahead and call your wife whenever you want to," said Hilliard.

On Friday, Hilliard (who has won numerous class-action suits for millions of dollars) was emotional when I asked him how big this case was.

"I've made a ton of money, but I've never had this feeling before," he said. "I walked into his house [Friday morning] and saw him sitting in the living room in his bare feet playing with his kids. They were eating Popsicles. I saw that and said, 'I could retire.'"

I asked Hilliard about Gaertner's quote.

"She's right; the system worked, but this is the first time in this whole process," he said. "It didn't work when he was prosecuted. It didn't work when he was sentenced. I think [the prosecution's case] was made with a bully mentality much more than the level of what happened to people in other cases that did not involve drugs or alcohol."

If the system worked, it was despite itself and nearly over the dead bodies of those who prosecuted, and inadequately defended, Koua Fong Lee. It was because of attorneys Hilliard and Brent Schafer, the Innocence Project and concerned citizens like Baltazar, who said people have offered the Lee family gift cards, clothes and furniture.

"You have people who came together and just kept pushing," said Applebaum. "I'm not a crier, but when a woman brought his four children into the room, I started bawling. In a few days, the media and everyone will be gone, and it will just be his family. He still has to bond with his kids. He still has to transition back into the world."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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