Tag Archives: Koua Fong Lee

Ignoring Looming Threats…

The gates opened at 9 am. Rain clouds persisted as a procession with cars of all shapes, colors and models formed. Thunder rumbled in the distance but despite the looming threat overhead, the 3rd annual Hotrod Breakout Car Show/Benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN) was about to begin. Adults and children alike were showing up in modest numbers to experience this unique event designed to create awareness about an issue that devastates families across the country. Rain clouds threatened to ruin our activities but the real threat comes from ignoring situations that ruin lives such as the lasting effects caused by wrongful convictions.

P1040788Triplets with baby sister in tow

A structured program commenced at 10 am. Brenda Kutska spoke first. She shared her family’s personal misfortune of dealing with a wrongful conviction. Her Father-in-law, Keith Kutska was wrongfully convicted along with five other men in 1995 of a murder they did not commit. Keith and four  others have been in prison for twenty years. There was no anger or malice, only hope in Brenda’s tone as she spoke of the many years her family has lived with no expectations of ever seeing freedom for Keith. Her ability to stay positive is due to renewed hope fueled by recent legal help for Keith. Each time Brenda paused to catch her breath, a respectful audience waited. Even as they heard about circumstances many of them could not relate to, their hearts were deeply touched. And after hearing about this type of injustice, something they never considered before, they applauded her candidness.

At 11 am it was time for me to try out a new platform-a 45-minute panel discussion with four exonerees; Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez from Wisconsin, and Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee from Minnesota. Julie Jonas, legal director for the IPMN would join me in introducing our exonerees, along with giving us a sense of what her organization does. There were a few sprinkles of rain in the air, but we proceeded as planned.

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Joan Treppa, exonerees Audrey Edmunds (11)*, Mario Victoria Vasquez (17)*, Mike Hansen (6)*, Koua Fong Lee (3)* and IPMN director Julie Jonas

Julie introduced Mike and Koua; two exonerees whose cases she had worked on. She quickly summed up the lengthy legal processes to free them. I introduced Audrey and Mario. I shared their circumstances and how we had met. We touched on the experiences of all four; the initial crime they were accused of, life in prison, how they found help and what their lives are like now. There was laughter and sadness. There were pleas to stay cognizant that these injustices exists and the importance of supporting organizations like the Innocence Project. Before long, the clouds dispersed and the sun appeared.

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Exonerees Mario Vasquez and Koua Fong Lee 

Following the discussion at approximately 11:55, something unexpected happened. I was leaving the stage when a gentleman approached. He and his wife had been driving by on the highway when they spotted our event. They felt compelled to stop. The husband presented me with a challenge to match all donations raised by 12:15 up to $1,000! He asked that I make an immediate announcement. I signaled to Chuck, our DJ, to pause the music. As I waited I wondered if we’d come close to collecting that amount or if we would lose out on this opportunity. The crowd was small and I had my doubts. But I made the announcement and hoped for the best.

At 12:15 a handful of us counted; $100…$200…$300…and so on all the way up to $1,000 and then some! We had done it and this couple assured us they would be sending a check. Although they wanted to remain anonymous, we couldn’t help but gather around to thank them for their generosity.

P1040808Exoneree Mike Hansen with girlfriend Shaylee and son Keegan

Still excited about our great fortune, I prepared for the second and final panel discussion at 1 pm with Attorney Steve Kaplan and Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski. They were discussing the WI Monfils case. Mike is the only one of six co-defendants (including the previously mentioned Keith Kutska) to be exonerated. Steve has been actively pursuing freedom for Keith for the past two+ years. At the last minute I asked my good friend and colleague Johnny Johnson to join us for this discussion because he is the retired private investigator who aided in compelling Steve to take on this case. I gave a quick case summary and proceeded with the discussion. Mike Pie shared his personal experience as the accused. Steve talked about the legal process of representing Keith. Johnny shared his viewpoint as an outside investigator and explained the proper techniques of interpreting evidence, conducting an investigation and his personal observations about this case. Steve also discussed the recent hearing for Keith in July of 2015 and what to expect in the coming months.

P1040822Joan Treppa, Steve Kaplan, exoneree Mike Piaskowski (5.5)* and Johnny Johnson

Both panel discussions were very informative and eye opening for those who gathered to listen. Both elicited reactions of dismay in regards to our judicial system and empathy towards the victims present that day. I felt that what we were doing was making a difference and helping the victims heal just a little bit more by affording them this opportunity.

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Mario Victoria Vasquez with Julie Jonas and her children Sarah and Sam

Amenities included two food vendors and Jeff Lee of ‘Art For You’. Jeff promised to donate 15% of his earnings that day to our cause. He sold four pictures. Chuck Brost, our DJ for ‘Tunes To Go’ was amazing as always.

P1040810                            Route 65 Pub&Grub

P1040805 Tater Boss Tater Tots

I am pleased to report I received checks from both the couple and from Jeff Lee. I had also received additional personal checks in the mail prior to and after the show. We raised a grand total of $3,080.50 which exceeded last year’s total. We are thankful to General Manager, Sue Stang of Route 65 Classics (which will be renamed Unique Classics on 65 as of September 1st, 2015) for allowing us free access of their facility.

The show ended with numerous awards for the best cars. Plaques and trophies were courtesy of friends, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett. They were handed out by WI exonerees Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez. To truly appreciate this incredible experience you’ll have to come to next year’s show. I hope to see you then…

P1040832                                Top 10 Award  

P1040834 Best in Show Award

* ( ) Total years of sentence each exoneree served.

           

                                                

“Hotrod Breakout”…a Benefit That’s Been Places…

I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the many dedicated people engaged in the planning of a third car show/fundraiser for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Compassionate individuals who’ve supplied hours of enthusiasm and selfless efforts on behalf of those wrongfully convicted have again created an exciting and unusual venue where tragic but uplifting stories emerge. The event is designed to resurrect reluctant voices that have been judged, criticized, condemned and ultimately silenced. Some of those voices appearing at this year’s event are: Wisconsin exonerees Audrey Edmunds, Michael Piaskowski and Mario Victoria Vasquez and Minnesota exonerees Michael Hansen and Koua Fong Lee.

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 Joan Treppa (standing) next to exoneree Audrey Edmunds 

P1040223                                                             Exoneree Michael Piaskowski

P1040684                            Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez next to Johnny’s classic car

Mike HansonExoneree Michael Hansen

Exoneree Koua Fong Leeows_142302270498185

We will also hear from Brenda Kutska whose father-in-law is currently in prison for a crime he did not commit. Her views from the perspective of a family member is sure to stir hearts…

Two years ago we began to highlight the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN). This non-profit organization bridges the financial roadblocks of those innocently caught up in catastrophic legal woes in dire need legal assistance. We’ve combined our talents to create awareness and to solicit funds to further their mission and it is our hope that this event will eventually become a significant source of revenue for them.

P1040786Banner created and donated by Budweiser

I salute my special friends who make up the planning team; Johnny and Linda Johnson, Rosemary and Pat Bonnett, Tom Erikson (aka: EricVonSon), Chuck Brost, Jesse Hoffman and all the others who work with us each year to help make this event a success. Special mentions go to Trudy Baltazar who collected and donated numerous items for prizes given out during the day, the Bonnett’s for their willingness to provide printed programs and the super amazing car awards. We thank Chuck Brost of ‘Tunes To Go’ for keeping us ontrack with our daily schedule, making announcements with added wit between appropriate era music for the event. Let’s not forget our good friend, exoneree Audrey Edmunds, who will again energetically hand out prizes!

P1040230Exoneree Audrey Edmunds congratulating a classic car winner

A final salute goes to the staff at the Project here in Minnesota for the important work they do all year long. Executive Director Heather Ring, Legal Director Julie Jonas, Staff Attorney Marie Wolf and all of the law students and paralegals who make up the IPMN team are to be commended for their diligence and selfless commitment to providing an invaluable service to those less fortunate in their time of need.

Because the IPMN it is a non-profit, our success in aiding them is critical because much of their funding is reliant on funds from general public doners. We must never forget that these funds benefit individuals who’ve been reduced to being labeled as thugs, murderers and rapists, who, in reality, were part of a civilized society, striving for the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They were once independently responsible for their own lives before fate sent them down a much different path.

P1040202Julie Jonas, her daughter and son, Sarah and Sam with MN exoneree Sherman Townsend (from a previous car show)

It is an honor to actively work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and we are again proud to present the one and only… (drum roll) ‘Hotrod and Motorcycle Breakout’; 3rd annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project! We are furiously getting ready to host this exciting event on Saturday, August 8th 2015 from 9 am to 3 pm. We’ve adjusted our schedule a bit this year. Instead of conducting single speeches by exonerees and advocates, we are inserting two panel discussions; one at 11 am and the other at 1 pm. We believe this format will provide an informative and educated interaction for our audience.

 

Car Show Flyer - 2015

Flyers distrubuted at other car shows

Finally, I would like to commend Route 65 Pub and Grub owner Brad Slawson and Manager Kathy Sauvageau for providing mouth-watering refreshments during the day and Route 65 Classics (under new ownership as Unique Classics) owner Gene Kohler and General Manager Sue Stang who’ve enthusiastically provided their space free of charge each year. Both businesses have made generously donated additional funds to our cause and both are already getting ready for our big day!

P1040472Kathy and Brad setting up their booth 

We hope this event will be especially successful this year and that it will go down in history as the best car show ever…one that will help drive this wrongful conviction issue back into nonexistence!

Please join us or donate to the IPMN today!

Thanks!

 

 

Unintentional Losses…

How many times have we seen car ads that boast about this feature…?  From zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds!

This type of maneuvering has been proudly embraced by car manufacturers for years as a top selling point over other makes and models. But truth be told, no other car manufacturer has anything that surpasses the capabilities of a Toyota Camry! Certain model year Camrys can go from zero to ninety in as much time and they have a track record to prove it.

I’m just speculating but based on this news report from a recent class action lawsuit in a Minneapolis courtroom which has garnered much attention nationwide, exoneree, Koua Fong Lee, former owner of a 1996 Toyota Camry along with the family of the deceased victims of an Oldsmobile Ciera, would probably agree that this is not a factor to be celebrated. In fact, they have asked Toyota, Corporation to fix a serious problem of unintentional acceleration due to issues with the car’s electronic throttle mechanism so that it does not cause harm to any more lives.

“Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and his father and brother home on June 10, 2006, when he exited Interstate 94. As his Camry accelerated, he sideswiped one car before hitting an Oldsmobile Ciera. Experts said Lee’s car was traveling between 76 and 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams’ niece Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed and died 16 months later. The three who died were “complete innocents,” said attorney Bill Markovits, who is representing the Trice-Adams family. “We ask you to hold Toyota fully liable,” he said.”  Star Tribune, Jan. 8, 2015

Despite numerous other drivers of the same make of Camry, who have come forward because of experiencing sudden unintentional acceleration-the same issue that Lee insists caused his crash, Toyota stands by its assertion that the fatal crash in 2008 that killed three people and sent Lee to prison for 2.5 years, was solely due to driver error. Part of their argument during the recent hearing states that Lee was an inexperienced driver and that he had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. They also argued that his 1996 model was not involved in a future recall event that dealt with the very problem he experienced.

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Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry. Photo courtesy of Star Tribune, Mpls, MN 

“Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007. A massive recall of newer Toyota models because of problems with sudden acceleration, starting in the fall of 2009, prompted attorneys to reopen Lee’s case. Ramsey County prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2010. The 1996 Camry was not among the vehicles recalled. Lee and four family members who were passengers in the Camry joined with family members from the Oldsmobile in a suit against Toyota.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

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Koua Fong Lee at a press conference in Mpls following a jury verdict. Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune, Mpls, MN

“Trembling as he spoke, and occasionally lifting a tissue to his face, Lee said, “I tried to rebuild my life, but it is very difficult to move on. I am very sad. I want to apologize to the other families” who had members killed or injured. “Every day I think about that accident,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “Many lives lost.” Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2015.

“Toyota’s attorneys appeared to be caught off guard. Driver Koua Fong Lee lost control of his 1996 Camry, said his attorney Bob Hilliard, because each time he tapped the gas pedal on the long exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue, the car accelerated.” Star Tribune, Jan. 29, 2015

This week’s outcome:

“Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $10.9 million in damages for the high-speed crash in St. Paul that cost the lives of three people and sent another man to prison, a federal jury decided Tuesday. Jurors in the Toyota liability trial found the world’s largest auto company 60 percent responsible for a 2006 crash that also sent a St. Paul man to prison for 2½ years. They found Koua Fong Lee, driver of the 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into a stopped car at the top of an Interstate 94 exit, 40 percent responsible.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

My thoughts drift between deep empathy for both families involved in this terrible incident and what the answer is, as to the appropriate responsibility and duty of the nation’s largest automobile company. Personally, I had hoped that Toyota would have seen a clear and evident problem with their product, and that precious lives are still being destroyed because of it. It would have been prudent for them to take a more compassionate approach. They should have shown the world that their company is based on the highest standard of integrity, by putting their funds towards more in-depth research to get to the bottom of this issue rather than pay multiple attorneys to blame the victims.

Honestly, I believe that what will end up happening is that enough people will feel the same way as I and will seriously consider their next car purchase with this lawsuit in mind. Of course, there will be those who stand by Toyota no matter what because they like the product, but I think that in the long run, Toyota may have already caused their own demise which will likely affect their bottom line as well as their reliability, not to mention their unintentional loss of integrity.

Vroom  Vrooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom…………                                                                                                                 

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