'Toyota defence' may free jailed driver

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The Independent US

Ever since his 1996 Toyota Camry shot up an interstate ramp, ploughing into the back of an Oldsmobile in a crash which killed three people, Koua Fong Lee has insisted he had done everything he could to stop the car.

A jury didn't believe him, and a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. But now, new revelations of safety problems with Toyotas have Lee pressing to get his case reopened and his freedom restored. Relatives of the victims – who condemned Lee at his sentencing three years ago – now believe he is innocent and are planning to sue Toyota. The prosecutor who sent Lee to prison said he thinks the case merits another look.

"I know 100 per cent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible," Lee said in an interview at the state prison in Lino Lakes. "When the brakes were looked at and we were told that nothing was wrong with the brakes, I was shocked."

Lee, 32, from St Paul, a recent Hmong immigrant, was driving home from church in June 2006 when he rear-ended an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light. Three people were killed. At his 2007 trial, Lee testified he was certain he tried to brake.

Attorneys for both Lee and the victims' families say they're encouraged by the evidence that the problems went beyond models that originally were recalled.

If Lee's car was defective, "We don't want an innocent man sitting in prison," said Phil Carruthers, who prosecuted the case for Ramsey County. A Toyota spokesman declined to comment on Lee's case.

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