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A New Twist on the Toyota Gas Pedal Saga

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St. Paul, MNThe recent spate of Toyota safety recalls brings up troubling new questions for those convicted and jailed for crimes related to dangerous or irresponsible driving—what if the car was to blame?

Koua Fong Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant, was driving home from church with his father, brother, pregnant wife and their four-year-old daughter on the afternoon of June 10, 2006, when his Toyota Camry accelerated suddenly and careened up an Interstate 94 exit ramp in St. Paul, Minnesota. Police at the time said the car was traveling anywhere between 70 and 90 miles per hour when it slammed into the back of an Oldsmobile that was stopped at a red light.

According to a 2/24/10 report by the Associated Press (AP), two occupants of the Oldsmobile died at the scene: Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Adams' six-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide. He was sentenced to eight years in prison—the maximum allowed.

At the time, Lee insisted he had done everything in his power to stop the runaway car. "I know 100 percent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible," Lee said in an interview Wednesday at the state prison in Lino Lakes. "When the brakes were looked at and we were told that nothing was wrong with the brakes, I was shocked."

Now, there is speculation that the car Lee was driving might have been at fault relative to the issues currently under scrutiny. Lee's 1996 Camry model was not included in Toyota's recent safety recalls, but AP reports that Toyota did recall some 1996 model Camrys for defective cruise controls that could cause sudden acceleration.

Toyota executive Jim Lentz testified at congressional hearings this week that, contrary to previous statements, Toyota is still investigating whether or not electronics played a role in the current problems with Toyota vehicles.

If Lee's car was indeed defective, says the prosecutor who handled Lee's case for Ramsey County, then they may have to revisit the case. Phil Carruthers told AP that "we don't want an innocent man sitting in prison."

Lee's current attorney said he intends to file paperwork soon asking to reexamine the wrecked Camry, which still sits at the St. Paul police impoundment lot. All sides expect the request to be granted. Then a judge would have to be persuaded that new evidence merits a new trial.

Joseph Daly, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, said Lee's chances look good. "I really think a judge would be inclined to let that evidence be presented," Daly said.

As Lee languishes in prison for a crime he may not be responsible for, he worries for his family. "Right now it is very difficult for them," Lee said tearfully. "It's because my children are still very young. My wife is going to school and there aren't people to help her out. My kids ask about me constantly. They ask me when I'm going to come home. They ask about me. I don't know what to say to them."

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