By Radley Balko
ABC News reports on the case of Koua Fong Lee, a Laotian immigrant serving eight years in a Minnesota prison for vehicular manslaughter. Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry, when he accelerated to 70-90 mph, ran two stop signs, then struck another car, killing three of its occupants. Lee says the car accelerated on its own, and testified that he exclaimed to his family that the car's brakes weren't working in the run-up to the crash. The family's of the victims are joining the effort to win Lee's release:
"I was angry for a moment, but when I came to my senses and thought about it, I didn't understand it," said Quincy Adams whose son and grandson were among those killed. "I can't believe that a guy with his pregnant wife, a kid in a car seat, his father-in-law and a brother-in-law in the car, would purposely be speeding up this ramp like that," said Bridgette Trice, whose seven-year old daughter later died from injuries suffered in the accident.
She said the news stories about Toyota's problems led her to reconsider what happened in the accident that killed her daughter.
"Maybe there is something to what Mr. Lee said was going on with him in his car, that he couldn't stop, that he tried his hardest, and the brakes, that his car wouldn't stop," said Ms. Trice.
"He's never wavered on his story that his brakes were bad," she added.
The 1996 Camry isn't part of Toyota's recent massive recall, but it was subject to a separate recall in the 1990s due to sudden acceleration related to the cruise control feature. That recall was not introduced at Lee's trial. The article notes that there have been 17 acceleration complaints about the model Lee was driving, though it doesn't say if that's an unusually high number in comparison to other makes and models.
If the car was defective, Lee was of course wrongly convicted and imprisoned, and deserves not only release, but a hefty payout from both Toyota and the state of Minnesota. He was convicted in 2006, and we're now learning that both Toyota and federal regulators knew about the acceleration problem as early as 2003.
But it's also worth asking why prosecutors decided to hit Lee with such a severe charge in the first place. He wasn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. He wasn't drag racing or showing signs of road rage. As noted, he was driving his family—including his pregnant wife and child—home from church when the accident occurred. The article doesn't indicate any theory from the prosecution as to why Lee would have suddenly, willfully driven so recklessly, but under Minnesota law they didn't have to. This is the problem with felony crimes that don't require the state to show intent. The Minnesota law requires only a show of "reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others," which could likely have been satisfied merely by showing how fast Lee was driving.
Cultural bias may have also had something to do with it, too. Lee is Hmong. As a commenter at the ABC News site notes, Lee's trial came months after the highly-publicized trial of a Hmong man who massacred three Wisconsin hunters in 2004. Now one state over, you have a Hmong man who took out three people while driving well in excess of the speed limit. Lee also testified through a translator, and according to the ABC article his trial judge expressed doubt about Lee's remorse. Maybe Lee really was unremorseful, though it also seems possible that an emotion like remorse could be expressed differently in different cultures or be lost in translation.
Whatever their reasons, the prosecutors seemed set on making Lee pay a heavy price for the three deaths, and paid too little consideration to his actual level of criminal culpability.