After Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith ruled that Lee is entitled to a new trial, County Attorney Susan Gaertner said there would be no retrial and no appeal.
Koua Fong Lee always said he was innocent, even as he sat in a Lino Lakes prison cell.
And Thursday, after an extraordinary day in Ramsey County District Court, his four-year ordeal in the justice system ended abruptly, and he emerged a free man.
Lee grabbed his attorney Bob Hilliard in a tight hug as District Judge Joanne Smith ruled he was entitled to a new trial and could be freed.
His jaw dropped and he sobbed when Hilliard and fellow attorney Brent Schafer told him, "It's over," just moments after he walked out of jail. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner had announced that her office would not seek a retrial.
"Bittersweet" is how Carolyn Trice described Smith's ruling. She is the mother and grandmother of the three people killed in the June 2006 crash, when the 1996 Toyota Camry that Lee was driving slammed into the back of an Olds Ciera.
Lee insisted from the start that he desperately tried to brake but that the car would not stop. But he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. The widespread Toyota recall that began last fall, due in part to sudden unintended acceleration, caused Schafer, who was Lee's attorney by that time, to seek a new trial.
On Thursday morning, prosecutors offered Lee a deal that would have set him free almost immediately, but also would have left a felony on his record. He rejected it, risking remaining in prison, because he wanted his record cleared.
In the afternoon, Smith ruled that Lee deserved a new trial, citing new evidence and errors by his original trial counsel. Then, just as Lee was being released to await the retrial, Gaertner announced there would be no retrial.
"I think it's time to bring this very sad event to a close," she said outside the courthouse. "No appeal, no new charges; this is over."
Lee was driving his family home from their Minneapolis church on June 10, 2006, a sunny Saturday afternoon. With him in the Camry were his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, his father and his brother. He took the Snelling Avenue exit off eastbound Interstate 94. As he reached the top of the incline, he tried to brake.
But instead of slowing down, he said, the car accelerated. According to the criminal complaint and the original police reports, Lee sideswiped a 1992 Toyota Solera and then slammed into the back of the Ciera. The experts said he was going 76 to 91 miles per hour when he hit the Ciera. Its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died at the scene. Trice-Adams' niece, Devyn Bolton, was left a quadriplegic and died shortly after Lee's trial at the age of 7.
The original verdict against Lee "just left an emptiness. It didn't make sense," Carolyn Trice said during noon recess from the hearing.
"Let the truth be told," said Mae Adams, Javis Trice-Adams' aunt. "That's all we've wanted since the beginning.
"I'm hearing a lot of things that didn't come up at the trial," she said.
New evidence discovered
Schafer had petitioned the court for a new trial in March, citing newly discovered evidence and ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Lee's Camry was never part of any recall. But after news reports on the case, dozens of people called Schafer to report that they had experienced sudden acceleration in their older-model cars. Eleven people who owned identical or nearly identical cars to Lee's Camry testified at the hearing about their own experiences with runaway cars. Smith said she gave particular credence to Ron Neumeister, a pilot for Sun Country Airlines and in the Minnesota National Guard.
He said he experienced several incidents in which his '96 Camry took off on its own. It was his experience as a pilot and soldier that helped him not panic and to regain control of the car by putting it in neutral and turning off the ignition.
Smith said testimony from the 11 was newly discovered evidence since most of their experiences happened after Lee's trial. She said the jury likely would have reached a different verdict if they had heard from those witnesses.
Michael Churchich, a mechanic for the city of St. Paul, testified at Lee's trial that the Camry did not have anti-lock brakes. One of the prosecution's key arguments was that there were no skid marks in the road, thus Lee was not braking. But photos shown at the hearing clearly showed that Lee's car did have an ABS.
Lee's original lawyer, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, didn't know that and couldn't cross-examine Churchich effectively because he never looked at the car or had anyone else look at the car, Smith noted.
Ron Meshbesher, a prominent Minnesota criminal defense attorney, also testified Wednesday that Eichhorn-Hicks did an inadequate job of representing Lee. "The case was not properly investigated," he said. "Unless you've done a thorough investigation, you're not ready to go to trial."
Trial strategy debate
Smith agreed, saying she was particularly concerned that Eichhorn-Hicks did not get Lee's permission before he told the jury in his opening statement and closing argument that Lee mistakenly hit the accelerator instead of the brake. He also told jurors that if Lee was negligent, then he was guilty of careless driving.
When Eichhorn-Hicks took the stand as a prosecution witness Wednesday, he said he repeatedly discussed his trial strategy with Lee and his family and they agreed with it.
Lee himself took the stand Thursday as a rebuttal witness for the defense and said he never agreed to let Eichhorn-Hicks say he was guilty, because he was not.
Schafer and Hilliard, a civil litigator from Texas, represented Lee free of charge, and Hilliard used more than $25,000 of his own money on the appeal.
As Lee walked out of the jail wearing his own clothes, he and his wife embraced, sobbing. Lee and his wife have four children, whom she has been raising on her own since he was jailed in January 2008. An hour or so later, both were more composed.
"Like I say earlier, the first thing I'm going to do is get to know my children," Lee said. "It's a real long time and they don't know me. I want them to know the word daddy. I am their daddy."
As he hugged his wife, a reporter asked, "How does that feel?"
"Is not a dream," he said. "It's true. Sometimes I dream and then I wake up still in the little room [his prison cell]. Now my dream come true."
Of the victims' families, he said, "I would like them to know this is not my intention to cause this incident.
"And I want them to know I will pray for them. I also want them to forgive me and to believe me."
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992