One after another, Toyota owners came to the defense of Koua Fong Lee on Monday in Ramsey County District Court.
"It seemed to drive itself," Kiersten Jaeger of St. Paul said of her 1996 Toyota Camry.
"Ever been on a runaway horse? It was like it was out of control," Lisa Falchetti of San Diego said of her '96 Camry.
"I had both feet on the brakes, pushing as hard as I could, and I couldn't stop it," Kurt Thomson of Stillwater said of his '95 Camry. "My butt was raised off the seat. I was pulling back on the wheel."
The three were among nine people who testified on the first day of a hearing to determine if Lee, serving eight years for criminal vehicular homicide, will get a new trial. The case has drawn broad attention and inspired a grass-roots movement calling for his release.
Lee's attorneys, Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard, want a new trial based on newly discovered evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel. The appeal got underway after news broke of the widespread recall of various Toyota makes and models for problems that include sudden unintended acceleration. Lee's car was not part of any recall, but people began contacting Schafer to say their older-model cars had the same problem.
The nine witnesses who testified Monday were among those who contacted the attorney. All had cars identical or nearly identical to the '96 Camry that Lee was driving June 10, 2006, when his car crashed into another, killing Javis Adams Sr., 33, his 9-year-old son, Javis Jr., and ultimately, his 7-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton.
Lee has insisted all along that he desperately tried to brake but his car wouldn't stop.
"We are not here in the next three days to relitigate whether Mr. Lee is innocent," Schafer told District Judge Joanne Smith in an opening statement. "This is about evidence the jury did not hear and about ineffective assistance of counsel. We have the burden [of proof] and we accept that. After hearing the evidence, you will find there is no other choice but to give Mr. Lee a new trial."
Jaeger, a high school Spanish teacher, said she experienced five incidents of "fast acceleration" in her Toyota this year. The first was in May, when she took her foot off the brake and the "car started driving itself," she said. Although she never touched the gas pedal, she said, the car went 30 to 35 miles per hour all the way from Randolph Avenue to Cherokee Park in St. Paul. The car continued to rev at 2,000 RPM even in park, she said.
About a week later, it happened again while she was driving to Baldwin, Wis., she said. "This time it got up to 45 miles per hour," Jaeger said. The third time was on the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul. The car was revving to over 6,000 RPM and, when she pressed both feet on the brake pedal she could barely stop before hitting a car in front of her, she said.
After the fourth and fifth incidents, she drove the vehicle to a dealer. The cruise control unit was replaced in late June and she hasn't had a problem since then, Jaeger said."Did anyone indicate to you that you were pushing the accelerator accidentally?" Hilliard asked.
"I was not," Jaeger replied. I'm 100 percent sure."
John S. Gathright Jr. of Richmond, Va., testified that his '95 Camry "took off like a wild horse. I could not control it." He was on a freeway, headed home in rush-hour traffic, when he tapped the gas pedal and the car took off as though it were trying to pass another vehicle.
"Before this little journey was over, I was going 90 to 95 miles per hour," he said. He tried "popping" the gas pedal. That didn't work. He tried braking. That didn't work, either.
"I was doing it as hard as I possibly could," he said. "It was running like a wild bull. It was chaos. I managed to weave between all the cars. Wherever there was a slot, I took it."
Gathright was finally able to get the car to the side of the road and turn it off, he said.
Thomson ended up rear-ending another vehicle at a four-way stop when his car accelerated. He said he is 6 feet tall and weighs 220 pounds, but with both feet on the brakes he couldn't stop the car. No one was injured. When he restarted the car after the accident, it revved to 8,000 RPM, he said.
"I loved my Camry till then; now I'm scared of it," Falchetti said of her experience in July 2007. She was taking her parents to the airport after a visit and was in a residential neighborhood where children often run into the street, she said.
"All of a sudden my car started accelerating," she said. "I hit the brakes really hard, put both of my feet on the brakes, put the car into neutral. The car was screaming, revving like it was going to blow up."
A wild freeway ride
Patrick Powers' 1996 Camry sped up to more than 110 mph on a freeway in Milwaukee in April 2008, he said. It took 8 miles to stop it.
Michael Frazier was driving his wife's '96 Camry in rush-hour traffic just north of Boston in September 2006, he said. When the engine began to race, he tapped the gas pedal. That worked the first time. The second time, it didn't.
Frazier said he had two feet on the brake pedal, pushing so hard the brakes eventually caught fire.
In many of the cases, including Frazier's, mechanics could find nothing wrong with the vehicles. All the drivers said they were absolutely certain they had not mistaken the gas pedal for the brake.
Assistant County Attorney Mark Lystig cross-examined each witness, asking about how many miles each had put on the vehicle, how often the oil was changed and whether they were using cruise control and/or air conditioning. Some were, others weren't.
Testimony from defense witnesses will continue Tuesday afternoon.
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992