A Minnesota man who spent more than 2 1/2 years in prison for a fatal Toyota crash walked free Thursday, after a judge ordered a new trial and a prosecutor said she wouldn't prolong the case reopened in the wake of the carmaker's widely publicized sudden acceleration problems.
Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul, jumped up and hugged his attorney after Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith said she had seen enough new evidence to warrant a retrial. Soon after, county attorney Susan Gaertner said there wouldn't be one.
"I think it's time to bring this very sad situation to a close," Gaertner said.
Lee blinked back tears as he spoke to reporters outside a downtown St. Paul hotel not far from the courthouse. His wife, Panghoua Moua, buried her head in his shoulder.
"It's not a dream. It's true," he said. "When we are asleep in the cell, sometimes I dream and I wake up in the little room, still in the little room. But now my dream come true."
The couple have four children ranging in age from 2½ to 8. Moua told reporters before she was reunited with her husband that the youngest two barely know their father.
"I want to know them, who I am, I am their daddy," Lee said.
Lee was convicted of charges including criminal vehicular homicide in the 2006 crash. A recent Hmong immigrant with only about a year of driving experience, he was exiting a freeway ramp in St. Paul when his 1996 Camry plowed into the back of an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light.
Lee's car was traveling somewhere between 70 and 90 mph. He insisted at trial that he was trying to brake before the collision, but was convicted. Smith, who presided over that trial, sentenced him to the maximum eight years.
His case received a new look after Toyota acknowledged sudden acceleration trouble in newer-model Toyotas, even though Lee's Camry hadn't been recalled.
Over four days of testimony this week, Lee's attorneys didn't prove his car had a sudden acceleration problem. But they argued evidence backed up Lee's account he was trying to brake. They also argued his defense attorney did a poor job. And they called a parade of witnesses who testified they had sudden-acceleration experiences in Toyotas similar to Lee's.
Smith said if that testimony from the other Toyota drivers had been introduced at his trial, it would "more likely than not, or probably, or even almost certainly" have resulted in a different verdict for Lee.
Smith also said Lee's limited English was a factor in her conclusion, as well as the work of his defense attorney, who suggested to the jury that Lee might have stepped on the accelerator.
"There were multiple errors and omissions by his attorney that necessitate this result," Smith said.
Prosecutors had opposed a new trial, saying there was no compelling new evidence. But after Smith ruled Thursday, Gaertner said the ineffective counsel was a compelling reason not to try the case again.
"He's walking out of jail tonight and will have no retrial," Gaertner said. "This is it."
Lee's release capped a dramatic day during which he earlier rejected prosecutors' offer to set him free and vacate his sentence. But that offer had included several conditions, including a stayed remainder of his sentence that meant he could face prison for a new violation in the future.
Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died in the 2006 accident. Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted. Two others were badly hurt.
Bridgette Trice, Devyn Bolton's mother, welcomed the judge's ruling. The victim's families had supported Lee's effort for a new trial, but Trice was crying outside the courthouse as she spoke to reporters.
"I'm happy for him but I'm still sad for us, cause he's going back to his but ours are never coming back to us," Trice said.
Lee said he wanted the families to know he never intended to cause the accident.
"I want them to know that I will pray for them and I also want to ask them to forgive me and to believe me," he said.