To Toyota driver Koua Fong Lee, recently released from prison, his attorneys -- Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard -- are his heroes.
Bob Hilliard is a 6-foot-6 Texan. He wears cowboy boots to court. He's become rich suing drug companies, automakers and anybody else who's done his clients wrong.
Brent Schafer, on the other hand, is far less flamboyant. He's a former farm boy and a workaday attorney who has his office in his Eagan home.
Koua Fong Lee, who was cleared of criminal vehicular homicide and is out of prison thanks to both men, thinks of them as far more than just his lawyers.
"They're my heroes," Lee said. "When I think about them and talk to them ... I feel like they are my family and my friends. Kind of like we are a big family. That means a lot."
Schafer, 44, and Hilliard, 52, will receive an award from the Innocence Project of Minnesota at a gala on Oct. 7.
The "Never Forgotten Award" has never been given before, but Erika Applebaum, executive director of the Innocence Project, said, "Rarely are we involved in a case that comes to us from attorneys outside our network, ones who have occupied themselves with obtaining the freedom of an individual who did not have the means to wage his own defense.
"Any of us could have been driving that Toyota in 2006, and could still be serving time if Bob and Brent were not on our team," she said. "They came forward to provide the very opposite of inadequate defense, to provide the best face of our justice system, and for that they deserve this award."
Lee, 33, of St. Paul, was driving his family home from their Minneapolis church in a 1996 Toyota Camry the afternoon of June 10, 2006, when he took the Snelling Avenue exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94. He insisted from the start that when he got to the top of the ramp, he tried to brake but the car would not stop. It slammed into the back of an Oldsmobile Ciera, ultimately killing three people.
Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and gross negligence, and sentenced to eight years in prison, which he began serving in January 2008.
Although Lee's car was never part of any Toyota recall, Schafer started looking anew at Lee's case after the automaker recalled millions of vehicles worldwide for problems, including sudden unintended acceleration.
After months of legal wrangling, Lee was granted an evidentiary hearing that included testimony from 11 people with identical or nearly identical cars who had experienced "runaway" or stuck throttles, as well as other testimony that was not presented in the initial trial.
District Judge Joanne Smith granted Lee a new trial on Aug. 5 and ordered him released from prison. Shortly thereafter, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said her office would dismiss the charges against him, making him a free man for the first time in more than 2 1/2 years.
'What about the guy in jail?'
Hilliard originally learned of Lee's case when a Twin Cities attorney hired by the victims' families contacted him to look into a lawsuit against Toyota.
"As soon as I got up there, I said what about the guy in jail?" Hilliard said. "If the guy's right, he doesn't deserve to spend another night in jail. I think of everything in the spectrum of being a father and I can't imagine not being in any of my kids' life for the first years of their lives," said the father of six, whose children range in age from 21 years to 7 months.
"I had lunch with Schafer, said I would help for free," Hilliard said. "Schafer and I hit it off right away. I like his instincts. He's a good guy. I told him, 'I'll come help. I'll bring in the experts. I want to meet the family.'"
Hilliard has earned multi-million-dollar settlements and awards for his clients through his Corpus Christi law firm.
He took on the Texas Supreme Court, calling the justices "nine nutty professors" and their ruling a work of "science fiction, filled with skewed observations and prissy platitudes." That happened after the court reversed a $33 million verdict to the family of a girl who was born without fingers on her right hand after her mother took the morning-sickness drug Bendictin while she was pregnant.
He won a $30 million verdict against Honda in a 1998 lawsuit on behalf of the parents of a 10-year-old boy who died in an all-terrain-vehicle accident. His firm currently represents the fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But he'd never done a criminal case until Lee's.
On that case, Hilliard ended up spending "close to" $150,000 of his own money. Once Lee was free, he bought him an iPhone. A new swing set for Lee's four children sits in the family's back yard, courtesy of Hilliard, who not only bought it, but flew back to install it.
Case took on 'a life of its own'
For Schafer, too, most of his work on Lee's case was pro bono. He was retained by Lee's family to represent him at his sentencing hearing. The family considered an appeal but couldn't afford it and the case was closed. But it was never far from Schafer's thoughts, he said.
In January, a phone call from a reporter changed everything: "Is there any connection between Lee's case and this Toyota recall?"
Schafer was just finishing up a drunken-driving trial and didn't return the call right away.
"The next day, everything hit the media," he said. "It took on a life of its own. Quite frankly, I was kind of naive. I never knew it was going to get this involved or deep. I just had no idea we'd be in this for six or seven months."
It's not clear what the next legal steps in Lee's case will be, or if there will be any. The families of those killed and injured in the 2006 crash have filed lawsuits against Toyota. Lee has not. The statute of limitations to do that expired in June.
The case has opened doors but hasn't changed his life or his workload dramatically, Schafer said.
"A new door has opened up to me of resources that I never had prior to this case," he said. "You can't phone this stuff in. If I continue to do this, it will make my practice and the way I practice law 100 percent better. I'm thorough and I'm anal. All the dominos were set up. All someone had to do was knock one over."
But Schafer's phone has not been ringing off the hook, either.
"People think I'm so busy right now. I'm not busy!" he said with a chuckle.
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992