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Minnesota judge frees man convicted in acceleration crash of Toyota

By Jim Kavanagh and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
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Tearful driver released from prison
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Minnesota man's vehicular homicide conviction vacated
  • Koua Fong Lee always maintained that his 1996 Camry accelerated out of control
  • Charges are dropped, prosecutor says
  • Crash victims' family believed in Lee's innocence, sought his release

Read more about the case from CNN affiliate KARE.

(CNN) -- A Minnesota man sent to prison after the deadly sudden-acceleration crash of his Toyota Camry has been freed by a judge, and the local prosecutor says he will not be retried.

Ramsey County, Minnesota, District Court Judge Joanne Smith on Thursday ordered Koua Fong Lee released from prison pending a new trial related to the 2006 crash that killed three people. Ramsey County Prosecutor Susan Gaertner immediately said she would drop the charges.

"Mr. Lee will be a free man," Gaertner said in a written statement.

Outside the courtroom after the ruling, Lee, 32, said he wanted his four children, one of whom was born after he was jailed, to know what "Daddy" means.

Video: Old Toyota crash gets new look
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"It's a long time," he said with tears in his eyes. "They don't know me."

Lee had always maintained his innocence, saying the 1996 Camry accelerated uncontrollably before it crashed into two vehicles, killing a man and his 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old girl.

On Thursday, Lee asked the family to forgive him and believe his story.

In fact, the family of the victims had long ago become convinced of Lee's innocence and joined the effort to free him. They are suing Toyota.

"It's a bittersweet victory," Bridgette Trice, whose daughter died of injuries suffered in crash, told CNN affiliate KARE-TV on Thursday. "I'm happy for the Lee family, that they're getting their justice. We want answers, and they're coming slowly but they're coming surely."

Mae Adams, whose nephews died in the accident, told KARE, "Our day is yet to come. ... We couldn't let this man sit in jail, no matter how much we wanted to know what happened."

Lee was driving home from Sunday services with his pregnant wife, and father, daughter, brother and niece. He told investigators that he pumped the brakes as he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and approached an intersection, said his new lawyer, Brent Schafer.

But Ramsey County prosecutors asserted at trial that Lee had his foot on the gas as he approached cars waiting at a red light. The car was moving at 70 to 90 mph when it struck the other vehicles.

Two mechanical engineers examined the car before trial on behalf of the state and the defense, Gaertner said earlier this year. Both concluded the brakes were operating and there were no problems with the acceleration, she said.

"Bottom line, two experts -- one for each side -- said there was nothing wrong with the car," she said.

A jury convicted Lee of criminal vehicular homicide in 2007, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. But he continued to maintain his innocence.

"I know that lives were lost that day, but I did everything within my power to try to stop that vehicle," Lee said in a prison interview with KARE last spring. "I never intended for this to happen."

The 1996 Camry is not a part of Toyota's recall.

Lee's accident is among the first of a growing number of cases getting a second look since Toyota announced the recall, acknowledging that problems with sudden acceleration were more extensive than originally thought.

In testimony before Congress, company executives apologized for underestimating the problem.

Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles, prompting Schafer to seek a re-examination of the vehicle in the 2006 accident.

"This never seemed right. A man with his family in the car -- his pregnant wife -- goes on a suicide mission? Then, the recalls started, and the complaints sounded just like what happened to Mr. Lee," Schafer said in March. "It sounds just like a case of unintended acceleration."

In the end, though, the conviction was vacated not only because of evidence of mechanical failure, but also because Judge Smith determined Lee's original attorney, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, had failed to defend him adequately at trial.

Eichhorn-Hicks had stated in court that Lee must have had his foot on the accelerator, even though Lee himself always maintained that he had pumped the brake to no avail.

"Compelling evidence was produced at Mr. Lee's evidentiary hearing on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel," prosecutor Gaertner's statement said.

"I wish Mr. Lee and his family the very best."

CNN's Ann O'Neill contributed to this report.

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