When Panghoua Moua loads her four children into the car to visit their father, Koua Fong Lee, she tells them they're visiting him at a school.
"I don't want my kids to be sad," Moua said this week.
The children, ages 8, 5, 3 and 2, are too young to know that Lee is serving an eight-year sentence at Lino Lakes prison for criminal vehicular homicide. Or that he's at the center of a drawn-out court battle that has captured headlines across the country and may get him a chance at a new trial.
Lee, 32, doesn't look much older than a teenager. Dressed in a prison-issued white T-shirt and blue jeans, he granted an interview Tuesday in a prison conference room. Interpreter Long Yang, hired by the Star Tribune, translated.
There's no question that Lee, who was convicted in 2007, was driving the 1996 Toyota Camry while going home with his family from church in June 2006, when the car accelerated up the Snelling Avenue exit off eastbound Interstate 94, sideswiped two cars and then crashed into another. Javis Adams, 33, and his son, Javis Jr., died at the scene. Devyn Bolton, then 6, was left a quadriplegic and died in 2007.
Given the evidence at the time, jurors found Lee guilty of the charges even though he insisted -- and still insists -- that he did not mistake the gas pedal for the brakes.
"I saw the red light [at the intersection]," he said this week. "I saw many cars. I tried to brake my car, trying to stop, but I was not able to, so I swerve my car to the middle lane, then I continue applying on the brake but the car kept going."
Last fall, after news of a massive Toyota recall because of sudden unintended acceleration, Lee's story was given more credence. His attorney, Brent Schafer, filed a motion for post-conviction relief, citing newly discovered evidence and ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
Lee now has new hope, he said, that an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Aug. 2 in Ramsey County District Court will result in a ruling that he is entitled to a new trial. If that's the case, he could be free within days, or perhaps even hours after the order is handed down by District Judge Joanne Smith.
Since word of Toyota's mechanical problems and subsequent recall, Lee has received many letters of support. They mean the world to him and his wife.
"I want them to know that that is one of the greatest gifts that is given to me," he said. "I like for you to express to my supporters, tell them I want to thank them very much."
But Lee's criminal case and appeals process have worn down both Lee and Moua. This is not the life they imagined when they prepared to immigrate to America in 2004.
Lee is sad, he said, that his 3-year-old son, Yengzong, and 2-year-old daughter, Angel, shy away and refuse to climb into his lap on their infrequent visits.
"The most difficult for me is that my children don't know who I am," he said.
"They see him as a stranger," Moua said. "They're scared. I tell them, 'Don't be scared. It's just Daddy.'
"You're the mother, you want your kids to have a mother and a father," she said, her voice weary and thin. "You want them to be happy, but ... I don't know."
Lee worries, too, that by his anticipated release date in February 2013, even his oldest daughter and son, Jemee, 8, and Yupheng, 5, won't remember him. But at least for now, they clamor to talk to him when he calls.
When he gets out, "The Number 1 thing is to get to know my children and help them get to know me," he said.
"They told me that when I go home, they want me to take them biking," Lee said through tears.
Lee was born in Laos, where his family lived in the mountains with no running water, no electricity and no bathroom, he said. He was 6 or 7 years old when his father, a teacher, took the family to a Thai refugee camp.
Moua and Lee arrived in St. Paul in July 2004 with a toddler in tow and their second child on the way. She was 19, he 28. They had no money, no English skills. He spent his days at the St. Paul Hmong social services organization, Lao Family, doing maintenance and miscellaneous work for free, so that he could gain some work experience and improve his English. Both attended school to get their GEDs.
For Moua, who was born in a refugee camp, America was supposed to be the place where they got an education, worked good jobs and bought a house. Now, she raises her children alone, living off $480 a month in welfare and about $500 a month in food stamps.
Moua said she isn't working right now because she has to focus on her education. She plans to graduate from a community college in the fall and transfer to the University of Minnesota or Metro State University.
"We live day by day, month by month," she said. "It's very hard."
Lee also lives day to day, although at the prison, every day is about the same. He wakes at 6 a.m., goes to school full-time -- still striving for his GED -- and attends a faith-based program daily.
He calls home every night about 8. Each call lasts 15 minutes. If he's lucky and there aren't too many inmates waiting to make phone calls, he calls back a second time or even a third.
They talk about everything but prison life.
"He doesn't tell me anything," Moua said, "and I don't ask him anything. You know that prison is a bad place. How can I ask him questions and break his heart? I just want us to talk about beautiful things."
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992 Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391