Recalls cast new light on Toyota crash case

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By Peter Whoriskey
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 11:05 AM

After his Toyota Camry smashed at high speed into a car stopped at a traffic light four years ago, Koua Fong Lee told everyone he could that he'd hit the brakes. He was sure of it.

But not even his attorney seemed to believe him.

"Mr. Lee clearly had hit the accelerator instead of the brake," the attorney told jurors at Lee's 2007 trial for vehicular homicide.

The father of four is serving an eight-year sentence for killing two people. But this week in a high-profile test of the "Toyota defense," Lee's new attorneys in St. Paul, Minn., are arguing that an alleged defect in Toyotas that causes sudden unintended acceleration -- not human error -- might have caused the accident.

In the wake of the automaker's recall of millions of vehicles in the past year, Lee's attorneys are seeking a new trial during a hearing that has drawn dozens of demonstrators supporting Lee.

Defense attorneys have presented testimony and affidavits from 10 owners of 1996 Camrys -- the same year as Lee's -- who experienced sudden unintended acceleration while driving.

"Ever been on a runaway horse? It was like it was out of control," one of the witnesses, a San Diego woman said Monday.

"I could not stop it. I pressed down on the brake with both of my feet and used as much of my body weight as I could to try to slow the vehicle down," a Minnesota driver wrote to the court. "The brakes just smoked."

"The vehicle suddenly took off," another said in an affidavit. "It was accelerating by itself. . . . It kept going up to around 80 mph before I thought to throw it in neutral."

On Wednesday, defense attorneys built their case that if Lee had had a better attorney, he would have escaped conviction. But as in many cases of unintended acceleration, one of the central issues is what happened just before the crash.

What is uncontested is that Lee and family members, including a 4-year-old daughter, were driving home from church when he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul. About 600 feet from a traffic signal at the end of the exit, Lee could have seen that an Oldsmobile Ciera, carrying another family, was stopped for a red light.

"When I step on my brakes, it's not working," said Lee, who was born in Laos and came to the United States from Thailand in 2004. "I continued to try to brake and I couldn't. . . . I was very scared because my brake was not working. . . . I yelled to my wife that the brakes were not working."


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