Innocence Clinic Helps Vindicate
Koua Fong Lee
AUGUST 9, 2010—Among the first remarks Koua Fong Lee made to the crowd of reporters, family, and well-wishers greeting him on his release from prison Aug. 5 were words of thanks to the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Dedicated staff at the Project and the affiliated Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School were instrumental in securing his freedom.
Lee was convicted in 2007 for criminal vehicular homicide after crashing at high speed into the back of an Oldsmobile waiting at a light at the end of a St. Paul freeway exit ramp. Lee maintained that he tried desperately to stop, but his 1996 Toyota Camry raced out of control. The crash killed three people and injured two others.
He was sentenced to 8 years in prison and had served 2-1/2 years when Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith ruled that new evidence was sufficient to warrant a new trial. Soon thereafter, County Attorney Susan Gaertner (’80) announced that prosecutors would not retry Lee or appeal the judge’s decision.
Lee was two years into his sentence when Toyota drivers began complaining of sudden acceleration, much like Lee had described, and the company began recalling millions of its newer models. The issue of car malfunction had never been addressed in Lee’s trial, and although his Camry was not recalled, the problem cast new light on his claims.
Lee’s family contacted Brent Schafer, a Twin Cities criminal-defense attorney, who took on Lee’s case pro bono. In March, Schafer filed a petition in Ramsey County District Court to grant Lee a new trial, and he contacted the Innocence Project for assistance.
The Innocence Project collaborates with innocence clinics in all four of Minnesota’s law schools. It chose the University of Minnesota Law School’s Innocence Clinic to help with Lee’s case.
Julie Jonas (‘95), managing attorney for the Innocence Project, is also an adjunct professor at the Law School and in charge of its Innocence Project Clinic. Under her guidance, the Clinic’s Student Director Hans Anderson (’10), with assistance from students David Kim (’10) and Joseph Goodman (’10), began tracking down Toyota drivers around the nation who had experienced sudden, unintended acceleration.
Anderson collected about 40 of the 50 affidavits secured from individuals who had experiences similar to Lee’s. He conducted interviews, helped witnesses draft their statements, and prepared some to testify at Lee’s hearing. Anderson also researched and helped Schafer draft the Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel portion of the petition, which became an important factor in Lee’s exoneration.
Lee had refused an offer from prosecutors to go free if he pleaded guilty, a deal that would make him a convicted felon. Lee maintained that he had tried to stop and was not a felon. Over four days of testimony, several witnesses described their own encounters with unexpected acceleration and futile attempts to brake.
Judge Smith found that the newly discovered evidence, and the failure of Lee’s trial attorney to provide adequate counsel, merited a new trial. But prosecutors decided to close the case and allow Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp in 2004, to return to his wife and four young children.
"The bar is set high for post-conviction relief,” says Anderson. “All the burdens of proof and persuasion are heightened and then shifted to the defense. As Judge Smith read her decision, the entire courtroom was buzzing. She methodically touched on each issue of the case and the buzzing kept getting louder as she sided with us on each one.”
The nonprofit, volunteer-based Innocence Project of Minnesota was formed in 2002. It receives about 200 requests for assistance each year. About 20% are investigated to some degree, selected largely on the basis of new evidence, Jonas says.
Students in the Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic help the Innocence Project investigate claims in several ways. They review primary source material, such as police and forensic reports, transcripts, and appellate briefs. They might talk to the trial and appellate attorneys who worked on the case and interview inmates in prison. And, as in Lee’s case, they might search out new evidence, interview witnesses, and secure signed affidavits. Anderson put in many hours on the case, but he says the outcome makes it all worthwhile: “The highlight of my career has come just months out of law school.”