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Prosecutors seek truth in Koua Fong Lee case

Koua Fong Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry on June 10, 2006, when he exited off Interstate 94 in St. Paul and crashed into a car at a stoplight. Two people in that vehicle were killed instantly, and three others were seriously injured, including a 6-year-old girl who later died as a result of her injuries.

In recent months, the aftermath of that horrific collision has generated widespread public interest and media attention, stemming from recalls of newer Toyotas for defective accelerator pedals and speculation that Mr. Lee's 1996 Toyota could have been defective. His attorneys are seeking a new trial on those grounds.

This case is very sad. It is heartbreaking to think about the tragic loss of life, the anguish of the victims' families and the life-changing turn of events for Mr. Lee, a husband and father of young children.

I understand the swell of sympathy for Mr. Lee. I also hear the voices of people concerned about justice in this case. They ask whether the real culprit might be Mr. Lee's Toyota and question whether he should have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison for eight years.

I care deeply about justice, too. It has been my life's work, including the past 15-plus years as the Ramsey County attorney. I take pride in having launched a review of past convictions that resulted in the exoneration of a man convicted of rape. I am as proud of that accomplishment as any conviction I have obtained.

Prosecutors, however, must observe the rule of law. We can't ethically operate on the basis of emotion, sympathy or speculation. In the Lee case, as in any case, we need evidence and facts.

That's why my office is committed to seeking the truth in this case. We initiated an inspection of Mr. Lee's car to check for defects, even though his attorneys didn't request it and the vehicle had been inspected before his trial. We are carefully reviewing all information related to Mr. Lee's car, including affidavits from Toyota owners who say their older model cars experienced sudden explained acceleration.

If new evidence proves Mr. Lee's innocence, we don't want him in prison for another day. But there are obstacles. The 1996 Toyota driven by Mr. Lee is not part of the recall for acceleration problems in recent models. It has a totally different acceleration system -- a mechanical, not an electronic, system. Mr. Lee testified at trial that his car did not suddenly accelerate, but said his brakes failed. Earlier inspections of his car found no problem with the brakes. A jury, after weighing extensive testimony and evidence, determined Mr. Lee had acted with gross negligence.

The court will have to consider all of those facts, along with any new evidence, in deciding whether Mr. Lee should be granted a new trial. Whatever the outcome, it will be the result of a criminal justice system working very hard to "get it right."

Susan Gaertner is the Ramsey County attorney.