As the band members tuned their instruments in the gymnasium at Inver Hills Community College, Koua Fong Lee put the finishing touches on his wardrobe, an impeccable ensemble, from the bright yellow tie to the neatly pressed graduation gown to the polished brown wing tips.
Lee’s wife, Panghoua, helped put the tassel on the mortarboard as their four children stood by, holding bouquets of flowers. As always, Panghoua was by his side.
Commencement at Inver Hills was the culmination of Lee’s American dream quest, or perhaps just the beginning in what has already been a tragic and heroic life.
Lee, 36, came to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand in 2004 with little money and little grasp of English.
Less than four years ago, Lee landed in prison, convicted in 2008 of criminal vehicular homicide for a 2006 crash that killed three people. Lee’s Toyota accelerated wildly into traffic and smashed into another vehicle. He said the Toyota’s gas pedal stuck, and he couldn’t stop it. But a jury convicted him and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Then drivers across the country began reporting similar problems with Toyota cars, and the Minnesota Innocence Project took up Lee’s case with the help of St. Paul and Texas attorneys. After Lee spent three years in prison, a St. Paul judge decided there was enough evidence that Lee deserved another trial. The prosecutor decided to drop his case. Lee was a free man, and his criminal charge was erased.
It has been a difficult journey since then, as Lee got reacquainted with his wife, and his young children, who didn’t quite understand why he had disappeared for so long.
“Koua is an inspiration,” said Julie Jonas, managing attorney for the Innocence Project. “He has come such a long way since his exoneration in rebuilding his life as a father, husband and student.”
“His journey toward graduation has been demanding,” Jonas said, “but Koua was born to overcome challenges and he does it all for his wife and four children. We couldn’t be more proud of him on this special day.”
Waiting for commencement to begin, Lee said prison was so hard on him that it was too painful to describe. The worst part, he said, was that Panghoua had their fourth child while he was behind bars and couldn’t be there.
“When the accident happened and I was in prison, I felt like all my dreams just broke,” said Lee.
When he was released, Lee said he just wanted to spend time with his young children, who barely got a chance to know him. While studying, he’s been able to make more of a connection, though “I still feel they don’t trust me as much as they trust their mom.”
“When we came to the U.S., my wife and I had a dream to get a higher education and get a good job,” said Lee. “We are doing it for the kids. … I am setting an example for my children.”
Lee got his degree in social work, and said he chose the program to give back.
“When we were in the [refugee] camp in Thailand, we saw many people come to help us,” Lee said. “I want to be a social worker and help all the people who can’t help themselves.”
Panghoua also said they want to return the help they got from a wide cross-section of the community, from the lawyers on the case, to “all the people — people we didn’t know — who have made a huge impact in our lives.”
Panghoua said the kids, aged 6 to 12, still don’t quite understand what their dad went through. “I tried to protect them from it, but they have tried to figure it out from the news.” She intends to explain the events when they are old enough to understand.
Asked if he’s mad at the justice system, Lee said “that’s difficult to answer. When they took me into prison, I felt in my mind that something wasn’t right for me and my family. After all I’ve been through, I never thought I would end up in prison.”
The Legislature passed a bill this session that would compensate people such as Lee, who served time behind bars after being wrongly convicted. But that law was far from Lee’s mind Thursday as he prepared to collect his degree.
“He was always afraid that he would never be a success,” said Panghoua. “But he’s always been a good man and a good father. When he was in prison, I was hopeless, but I tried my best to always be there for him and told him to be positive because something good was going to come. I am very, very proud of him.”