Prosecutor: Camry in deadly crash not recalled, 3rd Ld-Writethru, US
ST. PAUL — The inspection of a Toyota Camry involved in a deadly crash that sent a St. Paul man to prison supports his claim he did all he could to try to stop before the 2006 collision that killed three people, attorneys and a participating expert said Wednesday.
The filaments on the brake lights of Koua Fong Lee's car "exploded," indicating Lee hit the brakes at least a second or two before impact, said Jim Cook, an expert hired by the victims' attorney, Mike Padden.
Lee's defense attorney, Brent Schafer, began working to get the case reopened after Toyota recalled several newer models due to sudden acceleration problems. Lee's accident is among a growing number of cases, some long resolved, to receive new attention after Toyota admitted its problems with sudden acceleration were more extensive than originally believed.
Lee drove a 1996 Camry. A limited number of those were subject to a recall for a problem with aftermarket cruise controls that caused sudden acceleration. However, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner announced Wednesday that Lee's Camry had a factory cruise control and was not among those recalled.
Schafer and Padden say that doesn't affect Lee's case, however. They point to reports filed with federal regulators of sudden acceleration in 1996 Camrys that were never recalled. Lee's petition for a new trial last month also was accompanied by affidavits from 16 people who described sudden acceleration in their older Toyotas.
Lee insisted during his trial and in recent interviews from prison that he did everything he could to stop his 1996 Camry as it sped up a freeway exit ramp at about 80 to 90 mph and slammed into an Oldsmobile in June 2006. The 32-year-old is serving an eight-year prison sentence after a jury convicted him of criminal vehicular homicide.
Gaertner said Wednesday that her office will wait for written reports on this week's inspections, including a report from Toyota, before deciding how to respond to Lee's request for a new trial.
"It is reckless for anyone to speculate about the results of the inspection until we have those reports," Gaertner said.
But Schafer, Padden and Padden's expert said the examination of the brake lights backs up Lee's story.
"It appears to me that the brakes were on, the filaments were lit, and when the impact occurred, the filaments exploded on the inside of the bulb," Cook said.
The brake lights had to have been on for at least a second or two for the filaments to heat up enough, and they may have been on even longer, but it wasn't possible to determine how much longer from the bulbs, Cook said. Had the brake lights been off and the filaments been cold, he said, they would have simply broken loose and rolled around inside the bulbs.
Schafer said he's confident experts for all sides who inspected Lee's car at the St. Paul police impound lot Tuesday and Wednesday will agree in their final reports that the brake lights were on and showed that Lee tried to stop.
Toyota faces at least 100 lawsuits for injuries or deaths attributed to sudden acceleration and is the subject of a congressional investigation. Padden said he plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit "very soon" against Toyota and a dealer on behalf of the victims and their families, who now believe Lee is innocent.