ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Life seemed to stop for Koua Fong Lee on Oct. 12, 2007.

That was the day that Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies led him out of a courtroom and into a jail cell after he was convicted in a St. Paul crash that killed three people. Lee was driving a Toyota Camry that failed to stop at an intersection.

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Over the next two years, nine months and 24 days, Lee missed the birth of his youngest child. The second-youngest grew from an infant to a preschooler. His wife took on all the responsibilities of the family, caring for their four children and attending school full time.

“I said to her, `I’m sorry I cannot help you, but there is nothing I can do about that,’ ” Lee, 33, recalls. “`You have to be strong.”‘

And then, a year ago Friday, in the culmination of a dramatic struggle to prove his innocence, Lee walked out of jail, a free man.

“Today, I’m very happy to be here with my family,” he said during an interview this week from the back deck of his St. Paul home.

His favorite things? Making breakfast for the family. Playing catch. Taking the kids for walks through the neighborhood or around Lake Phalen. Reading “Arthur” books to them.

“Now they have their daddy back,” said his wife, Panghoua Moua, 25. “As a mother, I just see how happy my children are. It’s the greatest thing I could ever wish for.”

After reports surfaced in 2009 and 2010 of “sudden unintended acceleration” in Toyotas, and questions arose about the trial attorney’s handling of Lee’s case, two new lawyers asked the judge to throw out his conviction.

Then-Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner strongly opposed the effort, saying that the conviction was just and hiring experts who found nothing wrong with Lee’s car.

Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith, who had presided at the trial that convicted Lee, heard four days of testimony, which included riveting accounts by other drivers of the same model vehicle as Lee’s — a 1996 Camry — who had also experienced sudden acceleration.

She also heard from one of the Twin Cities’ most prominent defense attorneys, Ron Meshbesher, who denounced trial attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks’ handling of the Lee case.

Once the testimony was in, the judge wasted no time in setting Lee free.

She called prison officials hours before she delivered her decision, to ask if he needed to return there to be processed out. (He was being held in the Ramsey County Jail during the post-conviction hearing.) They said no.

The judge read her decision aloud in court, granting Lee’s request for a new trial.

Less than an hour later that Thursday afternoon, Lee walked out of jail — looking as if he weren’t quite sure if his freedom was real.

And while he and his attorneys were talking to reporters, Gaertner said the county attorney’s office would not prosecute him again. The charges were dropped.

Getting back to “normal” life was difficult, he and his wife said.

Their pastor, the Rev. William Siong of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in St. Paul, agreed.

“The first time that he came to my office, it seemed like he was very depressed,” Siong said. “And it was very hard for him to smile when we got together.”

At least one of Lee’s attorneys, Robert Hilliard of Corpus Christi, Texas, also has noticed the change.

“When I met him, he was very cautious, very closed down. Shut down. Just surviving,” Hilliard said. “Even when he got out, he was kind of a fragile observer of his own freedom: `Is this real, or are they going to take this away from me?”‘

Hilliard developed an unusual relationship with the Lees.

He intended to represent Lee in a civil suit against Toyota Motor Corp., and continues to do so. Hilliard’s work to that point had always been as a civil — not criminal — attorney.

But he joined with Eagan defense attorney Brent Schafer in the effort to get Lee out of prison.

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Since then, he has bought the family a large play structure for their back yard. He flew Lee, his wife and their two oldest children to Corpus Christi for several days at Christmastime, put them up in his own house and showed them around.

“I don’t do this for any of my clients,” he said. “(But) I have never tried to get anyone out of jail before.

“I think, for whatever reason, the stars aligned in my life and the gift I gave him (in legal help) wasn’t as big as the gift he gave me.”

Lee himself talks a lot about giving.

When he was in prison and publicity about his case began to build throughout the country, the letters started coming.

“Many people supported me, and they were on my side,” Lee said.

That inspired him to help others, he said. He now volunteers for his church, helping the pastor with the weekly bulletins. He went on a weeklong trip with a church group to Biloxi, Miss., on a Habitat for Humanity project. They built a house for a family who had lost theirs in Hurricane Katrina.

“I feel like I did something from my heart,” Lee said. “I feel very happy to help other people and do something for other people.”

Lee said he continues to pray for the families of the three who lost their lives on June 10, 2006, at Snelling and Concordia avenues.

Lee, accompanied by several members of his family, was taking the Snelling exit off eastbound Interstate 94 that afternoon. Traffic ahead was stopped at a red light. But Lee could not slow his car. “The brakes aren’t working!” he yelled.

They rear-ended an Oldsmobile Ciera. Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and Javis Adams Jr., 9, died instantly. Devyn Bolton died a year and a half later, at age 7, from complications of quadriplegia.

On June 10 of this year, Lee said, the Rev. Siong and members of his congregation came to the Lees’ home to pray and remember the victims.

In the coming year, Lee and Moua said, they hope to move forward.

His wife earned her associate’s degree from Inver Hills Community College and is taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree at Metropolitan State University. She may major in accounting.

Lee has signed up for courses at Inver Hills himself, hoping to go eventually into social services.

“I hope next year I speak English better,” he said. “I hope I will do something for the church or do something to help the community.”

And, as always, Lee said he wants to spend time with his family.

When he first got out of prison, his children wouldn’t come to him. The two oldest had lost touch with him. The two youngest didn’t know him at all.

“Now, they always ask me about something, (to get them) milk, juice,” he said.

His wife laughed. “I think now they love him more than me!”

The relationship between the two of them — strong in the beginning — has grown stronger, Moua said.

“We’ve learned from what we’ve been through,” she said. “And we love each other more and more every day.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press

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