ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The case of Koua Fong Lee, a Toyota driver imprisoned for a crash that killed three people, has spurred a grass roots movement among people who believe the St. Paul man is innocent.
More than 5,500 people have signed up for a "Free Koua Fong Lee" page on Facebook, created by a Los Angeles man. Volunteers with the Innocence Project of Minnesota have helped gather evidence to back up his bid for a new trial. His supporters include Trudy Baltazar, a 50-year-old mother from suburban Cottage Grove, who said she had never been in a protest, let along organized one. Until now.
Lee, 32, is serving an eight-year prison sentence for criminal vehicular homicide for a 2006 crash involving his 1996 Toyota Camry. A judge has scheduled an Aug. 2 hearing on Lee's motion for a new trial. He insists he did everything he could to stop before his car smashed into an Oldsmobile as it exited Interstate 94 at high speed. His attorneys say they believe Lee's 1996 Camry experienced sudden unintended acceleration, a problem for which Toyota has recalled some 8 million vehicles, though none as old as Lee's.
Baltazar spent two weeks drumming up support for a demonstration Monday afternoon outside the Ramsey County attorney's office, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Dozens of people showed up, carrying signs that said "Free Koua" and "Let Justice Prevail." Baltazar said she was angry with Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner for opposing a new trial.
"For a man who did nothing wrong to be separated from his family like this is, to me, unacceptable," Baltazar said. "And it should be unacceptable to Susan Gaertner, too."
In court filings, Gaertner has argued that information submitted by the defense — including affidavits from several dozen drivers of Camrys that experienced sudden acceleration — does not constitute the kind of new evidence required under Minnesota law to obtain a new trial.
Two experts hired by her office who re-examined Lee's car in April said they found no evidence of sudden acceleration.
Family members of the victims have said they believe Lee is innocent and are suing Toyota.
Judge Joanne Smith has scheduled an Aug. 2 evidentiary hearing for both sides to present their arguments on whether Lee should get a new trial.
Gaertner said the public sentiment is not surprising, "given the tone of the media accounts of this case," which she said have been pro-Lee. She said she could not estimate how many calls, letters and e-mails she and her staff have received regarding the Lee case. But she said she would not be swayed by public pleas.
"It would be a very sad day if I or the justice system in general started making decisions based on the popular mood," Gaertner said. "People who are sympathetic, people who capture the imagination of the press or the public, cannot be treated differently than unsympathetic figures. There's a reason we have the rule of law in our country."
Like Baltazar, Andrew Gwynn, 30, has never met Lee. The Rochester native — who now works as a music producer, recording engineer and songwriter in Los Angeles — said he got motivated to start the "Free Koua Fong Lee" Facebook page after seeing a report on Lee on ABC's Nightline.
"That very night, about 20 minutes later, I went to the computer and did that," Gwynn said. "There was nothing on Facebook, and I said, 'I'm going to stand up for this guy.' It just takes 10 seconds to make a page like that."
People have signed up for the page from all over the world, first from the Minnesota Hmong community, he said, then from as far as New Zealand, Australia and Israel.
"Then it became like this personal thing for me," he said. "My clients tell me, 'How do you have time for that? You work 16 hours a day.' It's what I do before I go to work, what I do after I get home ... responding to posts, searching the Web for more information, blogs.
"I want to win it," Gwynn said. "I can't give up now. We're so close."
Koua Fong Lee's sister-in-law, Kong Chee Vang, of St. Paul, said Lee's wife and family have been heartened to know that so many others are in Lee's corner.
"When Koua's wife heard there were people protesting to support Koua, it brought tears to her eyes," Vang said. "Seeing people believe in Koua makes a big difference. It's a wonderful feeling, that we have people who care."