Man Got Eight Years for Deaths From Accelerating Toyota

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

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 wasdriving, 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 wasunremorseful , 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.

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56 Responses to “Man Got Eight Years for Deaths From Accelerating Toyota”

  1. #1 |  Matt G | 

    I had a throttle stick on me once, while driving my mother’s Ford LTD II. I was a teenager, and was terrified of wrecking her car, and when I geared down it just revved faster so that I was afraid of burning the engine out. I got up to about 100 before coming to my senses and reducing speed. I rode the brakes all the way to my destination, and arrived in a cloud of hot, smoking, brake pads.

    But the car would stop. The decision to keep driving it was mine. If I had wrecked it, the fault would be mine.

  2. #2 |  staghounds | 

    “They needed to put away an innocent man for a car defect that had been previously described …”

    Who did?

    A jury of twelve people decided, beyond reasonable doubt, unanimously, that this character recklessly killed three (Black) people.

    He had a lawyer. He had the right to present, or not present, a defence. Apparently everyone, including himself speaking through his lawyer, agreed that he hit the accelerator rather than the brake:

    I’m a prosecutor by profession, but this man had as fair a trial as they come. He ran into the back of a stopped car, in daylight, on a straight road, in clear weather, after running through two stop signs, at between 71 and 91 miles an hour.

    That is as reckless as it gets.

  3. #3 |  Bill | 

    Only one to correct this.

    Let EVERY prosecutor that falsely accuses someone, and is discovered later to aided & abetted that accusation, pay up the same penalty he lobbied for the person falsely accused by him…. in this case 8 years.

    Watch these false prosecutions and innocent lives & families ruined, all over this once-great country drop to ZERO. These prosecutors never had anything to lose by accusing others falsely.

    Injustice in America will never disappear until this risk is implemented for prosecutors, cops, & judges. So-called ‘immunity’ is the cause of this. False Accusations will NEVER disappear until they have some skin to lose in the game, and they know it.

  4. #4 |  sharonsj | 

    When I heard about his conviction, I also thought it might be due to his ethnic origin. Then I had an argument with a friend about what to do it this happened to one of us. She would have turned off the ignition right away–but you’re right, you would then have a terrible time trying to steer. I would have downshifted into D1 and, if that didn’t immediately slow the car, I would have gone into neutral and finally turned off the ignition. The bottom line is that we don’t know how we would react in such a situation.

  5. #5 |  Fools | 

    It’s real simple. If we can believe the car took off by itself (and not because he failed to attach his floor mats properly), he’s still guilty because he’s too incompetent to shut off the engine, pull/stomp on the e-brake, stomp on his standard brakes or turn the car into something else like a wall or parked cars.

    The guy just didn’t have the skills to be on the road, period.

  6. #6 |  Joseph beasley | 

    I have a 96 camry,
    That model is not relevant too the previous recalls
    Unlike new camrys, the 96-01 engines used a mechanical throttle advance