University of Minnesota
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Julie Jonas, Hans Anderson, and others at the University of Minnesota's Innocence Clinic, Koua Fong Lee was freed from prison after serving two and a half years of an eight-year sentence.
Photo by Patrick O'Leary
Freeing the innocent
How law students at the U’s Innocence Clinic helped right an injustice
By Deane Morrison
A career as a lawyer had never appealed to Hans Anderson—until the day he was watching TV and saw a newly exonerated man being released from prison.
“I thought that must be the greatest feeling in the world,” says Anderson.
After enrolling in the University of Minnesota Law School, he secured a highly prized spot in the school’s Innocence Clinic, where students work closely with the Innocence Project of Minnesota to try to free inmates who can make a strong case for having been wrongly convicted.
This year—Anderson’s last in law school—the case of a lifetime came along when a lawyer representing Koua Fong Lee asked the Innocence Project of Minnesota to help exonerate his client.
Through the Innocence Clinic, U law students screen and investigate inmates’ claims of innocence and get an invaluable look at how cases proceed through the criminal justice system.
“Common causes of wrongful convictions include bad lawyering, bad forensic science, mistaken eyewitness identifications, and, in about 25 percent of cases, a defendant being coerced into confessing to police,” says Julie Jonas.
But “it’s rare that a case has any potential for exoneration,” Hans Anderson says. “The Lee case was only the second exoneration I know of in Minnesota, and there have been only 250 to 260 in the whole country.”
Lee was driving his Toyota Camry on a freeway exit ramp when it suddenly sped up and crashed into other cars. Ultimately, three people were killed and two injured. Lee, who had been coming from church with his pregnant wife, father and brother, was convicted in 2007 of criminal vehicular homicide and given an eight-year sentence.
But his luck turned with the recent publicity about sudden acceleration in Toyotas. Working for Lee pro bono, attorney Brent Schafer filed an appeal in Ramsey County District Court for a new trial and asked the Innocence Project for help. Much of the work fell to the U's Innocence Clinic, in particular to Anderson and Julie Jonas, an adjunct Law School professor and managing attorney for the Minnesota Innocence Project, who oversees the clinic.
“We were excited when Julie told us we were getting the case because we’d heard about it in the media,” says Anderson.
“My initial assessment was that this had to be an accident. To me, it was a huge miscarriage of justice that a jury could find this wasn’t an accident. In fact, many of the jurors have since commented that they would have voted differently had they known about the Toyota recalls.”
Turning the tables
It wasn’t long before potential witnesses came pouring in. Dozens of people who had had similar problems with Toyotas contacted Schafer through a website he had set up and recounted their experiences.
“About 50 people gave affidavits,” Anderson recalls. “I helped write about 40 of them.”
One in particular stood out from the pack, says Jonas.
“I talked to a witness who was a pilot for Sun Country,” she says. “He was also in the National Guard Reserve and flew for them. He was absolutely credible, as somebody who understands [mechanical systems]. He said, ‘My Toyota was accelerating out of control, and the brakes couldn’t stop it.’”
Besides the new evidence, the clinic team and Schafer claimed that Lee had had incompetent counsel at his trial.
“His trial attorney [not Schafer] messed up by saying in court that Lee had his foot on the gas, when Lee consistently and unwaveringly protested [on the stand] to the contrary,” notes Anderson.
In the end, the court ordered Lee a new trial. But before the ink on the order could dry, the Ramsey County attorney announced that prosecutors would not retry him nor appeal the decision. On August 5, 2010, Lee was released after serving two and a half years in prison and reunited with his wife and four young children.
Lee was so grateful to his defense team that he invited them, including Anderson and Jonas, to a Hmong dinner.
“It was wonderful, almost like a dream,” says Anderson of his experience. “It was the highlight of my career.” And it came barely two months after his graduation from law school.