After spending 2 1/2 years in prison, a man convicted of vehicular homicide was set free last week in part because of work done by a group at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Before the local Innocence Project clinic got involved, Koua Fong Lee was serving an eight-year prison sentence for a June 2006 car crash that killed three and injured two.
The project is a nonprofit organization that uses volunteers and law students to help gather evidence for those they feel have been wrongly convicted.
In Lee’s case, questions arose when Toyota began recalling models last fall.
"Once ABC broke the story nationally, we had people coming out of the woodwork to tell us the same thing had happened to their Toyota," said Julie Jonas, managing attorney of the Innocence Project of Minnesota.
Suddenly, Lee’s claim that despite braking, his car would not stop became much more believable, putting his trial in question.
"Actually, Lee’s case was a little different for us," said Hans Anderson, the Innocence Project’s student director at the University. "He did not petition us. He did not contact the Innocence Project."
It was Lee’s new attorney Brent Schafer, rather, who came to the Innocence Project with the case.
After being contacted, the Innocent Project went to work producing about 50 affidavits from other Toyota drivers who had the same make and model as Lee and had also experienced sudden acceleration, Anderson said.
"They played a huge role in assisting me with these affidavits," Schafer said. "The legwork they provided was priceless."
Newly discovered evidence is crucial to granting release post conviction, Anderson said. "Even to be given the original evidentiary hearing you have to prove that there’s evidence that couldn’t have been discovered at the time of trial. And that’s what those affidavits were."
In addition to the new evidence, the Project also said Lee’s first attorney did a bad job.
During the trial, Lee’s attorney without his client’s consent dismissed Lee’s claim that he had been braking, Anderson said.
Lee is now the second person in state history to be exonerated, Jonas said.
"For the Project, it’s huge for publicity," Anderson said, adding that Lee can now be used to help in fundraising for the organization.
Each year, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a statewide organization that also has university branches, receives about 200 requests from convicts a year, and investigates roughly 20 percent of those.
After some investigation, the Innocence Project of Minnesota selects a university clinic to continue looking into a case.
But very few cases end like Lee’s.
"[Cases like this] have been the highlights of my career," Jonas said. "Seeing him reunited with his wife and children is something that I’m just so honored to be a part of."