An advocate for freedom
Rochester native Andrew Gwynn can't say what exactly moved him to create a Facebook page devoted to Koua Fong Lee, the St. Paul man who was serving an eight-year sentence for a 2006 crash that killed three people.
But Gwynn, 30, who lives in Los Angeles, felt compelled to do something. Minutes after watching a Nightline investigative report that raised doubts about Lee's conviction, Gwynn launched the page. He called it "Free Koua Fong Lee."
Over time, the site would become a national megaphone calling for Lee's freedom. It would create a network of supporters numbering nearly 7,000 strong and become a vehicle for mobilizing rallies and fundraising efforts on Lee's behalf.
"You see a lot of stories like this from time to time — an innocent guy in jail," said Gwynn, a 1998 John Marshall graduate who works as a recording engineer. "You never hear about it again. And I did not want this to be one of those stories."
It didn't. Lee was freed from prison earlier this month after serving 2 1/2 years, when a judge ordered a new trial. The county attorney has said she won't seek to retry the case.
Lee was on his way home from church with his pregnant wife and children in June 2006 when his Toyota Camry smashed into the rear of a vehicle stopped at red light. Lee has always maintained that his brakes gave out.
But it wasn't until Toyota's widely publicized problems with sudden acceleration in newer models and a national recall that pressure built for Lee's case to be re-examined.
Lee says he has no doubt that Gwynn's Facebook page played a role in bringing about his release, calling Gwynn a "gift from God."
"I thought to myself, 'I think he believes in me. He wants to prove to the world that I am innocent," Lee said.
Lee said that when he first read about Gwynn's efforts on his behalf, he had no idea what Facebook was. He had to ask around to understand what the social network was all about.
Kong Chee Vang, Lee's sister-in-law, said that after months of waging a lonely struggle to convince others of Lee's innocence, the family drew comfort from Gwynn's advocacy. She was soon encouraging members of her extended family and those in the Hmong community to join the site, and its popularity quickly soared.
"It was awesome," Vang said. "For many years, a lot of people didn't believe him. And when, Andrew, a complete stranger, went out of his way to do this, it took the family by surprise. It gave us hope."
At night, in phone conversations, Lee's wife, Panghoua Moua, would read to Lee the words of support written by people on Gwynn's Facebook page. Lee also started receiving letters of support in prison from people around the world who had seen the site.