Koua Fong Lee's 2007 criminal vehicular homicide trial gathered few headlines outside of Minnesota when it happened. But the Laotian immigrant has become well-known across the nation after problems surfaced recently with sudden acceleration in Toyota Camrys. Lee, a 32-year-old with a family of four, was driving a 1996 Camry when he lost control of it on the Snelling Avenue off-ramp from Interstate 94 in St. Paul and slammed into another car. Two passengers inside died, and another later succumbed to her injuries. Lee has always maintained that he pumped the brake, but the car continued to accelerate. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2008. Lee's attorney is now petitioning the judge for a new trial, citing the Toyota recalls as new evidence. Legal experts have also raised questions about the length of his sentence. On Thursday, using an interpreter, he answered these questions from editorial writer Jill Burcum. Here are his edited responses:
QWhen you came to the United States, what did you think it would be like? What were your expectations of the justice system?
AI believed that the United States is a very blessed country and it is fair to everybody.
QWhat do you think now?
AI still believe there are people here who are fair and just and some who are not. Overall, I do feel that this is a very fair, just and blessed country.
QWhy do you think you got a longer prison sentence than other people who have caused fatal crashes?
AI don't know. I don't understand the justice system in the U.S. But when I read articles [about other drivers who caused fatal crashes and received shorter sentences], I don't understand it. Other people have told me, "You know if you were drunk you wouldn't have gotten the sentence that you did."
AI still have this hope and belief. My attorney is doing all he can to help. There are people all over the world ... with different racial backgrounds who are writing in to help me and my case.
QYou are still very certain that the car was at fault, that you didn't make a mistake?
AFrom the moment that this happened until today I know that I put my foot on the brakes. When the car was looked at and the brakes were OK, I was shocked that they didn't find anything wrong with the brakes.
QYou might have gotten a shorter sentence if you'd agreed to a plea bargain instead of going to trial. My understanding is that you wouldn't consider one. Why didn't you pursue that?
AI was told that I could do that but I didn't take it. I knew I was not guilty. I knew I put my foot on the brake. ... I did not want to take a plea bargain. I didn't want to say I was guilty.
QSome have said that you didn't make a very convincing or sympathetic witness at the trial, and that you weren't remorseful. Why did people think this?
AI don't know what the correct mannerisms are. I didn't know if I was supposed to show emotion or not, so I didn't know what to do.
QWhat went through your head when the judge said what the sentence was?
AAt the time, I thought the sentence was long. I don't know what else to say.
QYour current release date is in 2013. What will be the first thing you do when you get out?
AI really miss my kids. The very first thing I'd do is spend time with them, talking to them, so they get to know me and I get to know them.
QHow do you feel now seeing that other Toyotas have had an acceleration problem?
AWhen I read the stories about these other drivers whose car did not stop, I think, that's me. That's my story.
QAnything I didn't ask about that you'd like to comment on?
AHad I known this was going to happen, I would have stayed in the refugee camp. If I had known lives would be lost and my wife and kids separated from me, I'd rather have lived in a refugee camp. I would like the victims' family to know that this was not on purpose, not intentional. I tried to step on the brake. I tried to stop the car. It just didn't happen.