- Demonstration in Support of Koua Fong Lee
DEMONSTRATION IN SUPPORT OF KOUA LEE
Monday, July 12
Ramsey County Attorney's Office
50 W Kellogg
Supporters back jailed Toyota driver Koua Fong Lee
Grassroots movement to culminate in protest at county attorney's office
By Emily Gurnon
Updated: 07/11/2010 11:10:15 PM CDT
Trudy Baltazar has spent her adult life raising kids, working as an administrative assistant for 3M and occasionally delivering sloppy joes and brownies to a family keeping vigil with a sick relative.
But Baltazar, 50, of Cottage Grove has never made protest signs or contacted a TV station for publicity. She's never organized a protest.
She's never even been in a protest.
Baltazar has spent the past two weeks drumming up support for a 3 p.m. demonstration today outside the Ramsey County attorney's office at 50 West Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul.
She is one of thousands of people speaking out on behalf of Koua Fong Lee, the 32-year-old St. Paul man who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide in a 2006 crash involving his Toyota Camry.
Some supporters have promised to come to the protest. Some have contributed to a modest defense fund for Lee. A Berkeley woman posted Lee's case on the website Change.org, which promotes causes and encourages visitors to take action. And more than 5,500 have signed on to a "Free Koua Fong Lee" page on Facebook, created by a Los Angeles man. The nonprofit Innocence Project of Minnesota has donated legal help.
Baltazar is angry that county attorney Susan Gaertner has opposed a new trial for Lee, who crashed into the back of another car at the Snelling Avenue intersection off I-94, ultimately killing a man and two children.
"For a man who did nothing wrong to be separated from his family like this is, to me, unacceptable," she said. "And it should be unacceptable to Susan Gaertner, too."
Lee has insisted he was trying to stop his car, which experts said was traveling as fast as 91 mph when it hit the back of an Oldsmobile that was stopped at a red light on June 10, 2006. The brakes didn't work, Lee said.
His attorneys now say they believe Lee's 1996 Camry experienced sudden unintended acceleration, a problem for which Toyota has recalled some 8 million vehicles, though none as old as Lee's.
Gaertner has argued the information submitted by Lee's defense team including affidavits from several dozen drivers of other Camrys that experienced similar problems does not constitute new evidence under Minnesota law. New evidence is required for a convicted person to obtain a new trial. Two licensed professional engineers hired by her office found nothing in Lee's car that would suggest the car suddenly accelerated.
The public sentiment in favor of Lee is not surprising, Gaertner said on Sunday, "given the tone of the media accounts of this case."
When asked if she was saying media accounts had been pro-Lee, she said, "Of course that's what I'm
Baltazar, who was born in St. Paul, said she wanted to be a lawyer when she was a little girl. "I always wanted to fight for people's rights."
But her mother died when she was 10, Baltazar said, and her father couldn't afford to send any of his seven children to college.
When someone such as Koua Fong Lee "doesn't have a voice," Baltazar said, "I feel that other people need to be that person's voice. Sometimes it takes the public to get involved to see that justice is done."
Like Baltazar, Andrew Gwynn, 30, has never met Lee, his wife, their family or their friends. The Rochester, Minn., native who now works as a music producer, recording engineer and songwriter in Los Angeles, said he got motivated to start the "Free Koua Fong Lee" Facebook page after seeing a report on Lee's case in March by Brian Ross on ABC's Nightline.
"That very night, about 20 minutes later, I went to the computer and did that," he said. "There was nothing on Facebook, and I said, 'I'm going to stand up for this guy.' It just takes 10 seconds to make a page like that."
What began as a spur-of-the-moment act eventually morphed into something much bigger, Gwynn said. People have signed on to the page from all over the world, first from the Minnesota Hmong community, he said, then from as far as New Zealand, Australia and Israel.
"Then it became like this personal thing for me," he said. "My clients tell me, 'How do you have time for that? You work 16 hours a day.' It's what I do before I go to work, what I do after I get home... responding to posts, searching the Web for more information, blogs.
"I want to win it," Gwynn said. "I can't give up now. We're so close."
Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith has scheduled an Aug. 2 evidentiary hearing in Lee's case for both sides to present their arguments on whether Lee should get a new trial. The final decision is hers.
Koua Fong Lee's sister-in-law, Kong Chee Vang, of St. Paul, said his wife and family have been heartened to know that so many others are in Lee's corner.
"When Koua's wife heard there were people protesting to support Koua, it brought tears to her eyes," Kong Chee Vang said. "Seeing people believe in Koua makes a big difference. It's a wonderful feeling, that we have people who care."
Gaertner said she could not estimate how many calls, letters and e-mails she and her staff have received regarding the Lee case.
However, the county attorney's office has dedicated a separate page on its website with 10 Lee-related documents for the public to view. There is no other individual case for which any information is provided.
Gaertner said she would not be swayed by the public's pleas on Lee's behalf.
"It would be a very sad day if I or the justice system in general started making decisions based on the popular mood," she said. "People who are sympathetic, people who capture the imagination of the press or the public, cannot be treated differently than unsympathetic figures. There's a reason we have the rule of law in our country."
Asked if she planned to go outside to speak to the protesters, Gaertner paused.
"I doubt that would be productive," she said.
Pioneer Press photographic Jean Pieri contributed to this story.
Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522.