A St. Paul man wrongly imprisoned for a fatal 2006 car accident is seeking compensation from the state for the 2½ years he spent behind bars.
Koua Fong Lee is eligible to receive compensation under the Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act enacted in July, said an order signed Monday by Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's office signed off on the stipulation agreeing to Lee's eligibility for the compensation, a minimum of $50,000 per year of incarceration plus restitution and other damages.
"This was a pretty easy decision — the right thing to do," Choi said. "We know so much more today."
Choi and Julie Jonas, legal director of the Minnesota Innocence Project, said they believe that Lee is the first person to seek compensation under the new law.
Lee was convicted at trial in 2007 of nine felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide, imprisoned and then freed in August 2010 after a massive Toyota recall revived his cause and led to the dismissal of his case.
Jonas, who helped with Lee's criminal case and whose organization was instrumental in passing the act, said the money symbolizes the state's willingness to recognize and rectify problems in the justice system.
"Money can never fix anything, right?" Jonas said. "But it's a start to help them put their lives together."
Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, his father and his brother home from their Minneapolis church on June 10, 2006, when he took the Snelling Avenue exit off eastbound Interstate 94. He tried to brake when he reached the top of the incline, but has said that his 1996 Toyota Camry accelerated instead, sideswiping one car before slamming into the back of an Oldsmobile Ciera.
Experts said that Lee's car was traveling 76 to 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams' niece, Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed in the crash and died after Lee's trial.
Jurors convicted Lee in October 2007 and he was sentenced in January 2008 to eight years in prison.
Lee petitioned in 2010 for a new trial, and was granted one based on the testimony of 11 drivers who said they experienced sudden acceleration in older model Toyotas. The Ramsey County attorney at the time, Susan Gaertner, dismissed his case instead.
Lee's cause was boosted by a massive recall of Toyotas, partly due to sudden acceleration, although it didn't include the model he drove in 2006.
Choi said that the evidence that led to clearing Lee wasn't available when he was tried, and that the justice system worked as it should have in the absence of that knowledge.
"All of that was in good faith, and people doing what they're supposed to be doing," Choi said of Lee's trial.
The charges would not be filed today with the evidence available, Choi said.
A three-person panel composed of judges and/or attorneys will have to approve Lee's compensation at an undetermined date.
His legal fights aren't over. Lee and Trice-Adams' family members are suing Toyota in federal court. Both families' claims are scheduled to be tried together next month.
Brent Schafer, one of Lee's attorneys, said his client has taken a hiatus from his college education to prepare for what could be a monthlong trial. Lee hopes to become a social worker one day, Schafer said, and is raising his four kids with his wife.
"He's very happy to be out of prison and with his family, but the memory of [the crash] is going to be with him for a long time," Schafer said.