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Righting a wrong: Cottage Grove woman's memoir chronicle's fight for wrongly convicted man

Trudy Baltazar

Trudy Baltazar said she moved to Cottage Grove because she heard that residents here help each other.

In her recently self-published memoir, “A Road to Freedom,” she writes about her own efforts to help free a wrongly convicted man from prison.

Koua Fong Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry on June 10, 2006, when it crashed into an Oldsmobile Ciera at the end of an exit ramp in St. Paul. Three people in the Oldsmobile died, including two children.

During his trial, Lee testified that the brakes on the Camry did not respond, despite his frantic efforts to stop. A jury convicted him of criminal vehicular homicide and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Baltazar had never met Lee, but she organized two support rallies for him at the state Capitol and a Walk for Freedom to raise funds for Lee’s defense.

“His family had already spent all of their money on their first lawyer,” she said. “They had nothing to file an appeal.”

In 2010, the Minnesota Innocence Project took up Lee’s case after Toyota came under scrutiny for an alleged “sudden unintended acceleration” in some of its vehicles, including the 1996 Camry. They contacted other Camry owners who said they had also experienced brake failure and uncontrollable acceleration. 

They worked with Lee’s new defense attorneys, Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard, who took the case pro bono. They were assisted by law students from the University of Minnesota Innocence Clinic. Based on the evidence they uncovered, they requested a new trial for Lee.

Baltazar got involved at that point. She said she was getting ready for work when she overheard a television news report in which then-Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said her office opposed a new trial for Lee.

“He was opposed a new trial by the Ramsey County attorney, even though all these new witnesses had come forward,” Baltazar said. “They signed affidavits saying the same thing had happened in their ‘96 Camrys.”

Baltazar found a Facebook page titled “Free Koua Fong Lee.” It was created by Andrew Gwynn, a Rochester native now working as a music producer in California.

She used the Facebook page to organize the rallies for Lee.

“I started making the protest signs,” she said. She made 50 signs and drove to the Minnesota Capitol with them, wondering if anybody would show up to carry them. By this time, Lee had been in prison for nearly three years. He had missed the birth of his fourth child, a daughter named Angel.

That first rally drew 50 people and received extensive coverage by newspapers and television news stations. Baltazar was later interviewed on the telephone by a reporter from ABC News. She got emails of support from as far away as Thailand.

“I was getting emails and phone calls from everywhere, just people wanting to donate gift cards for the family, clothing and furniture,” she said.

Julie Jonas, managing attorney with the Minnesota Innocence Project, said that Baltazar’s efforts help spread the word of Lee’s plight.

“I think that the rallies really raised public awareness,” Jonas said. “It’s a rare thing in Minnesota to see 50 people on the street carrying signs that said ‘Free Koua Fong Lee.’”

Lee was granted a new trial on August 5, 2010. In her ruling, the judge cited the new evidence, which included testimony by other Camry owners and mistakes made by the prosecution. He became a free man after the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office declined to retry the case.

Baltazar felt compelled to help a man she had never met.

“It just very much disturbed me that the county attorney was taking away his chances to defend himself,” she said. “I felt like they were taking away his voice.”

Lee recently made his voice heard at the Capitol, where he testified before the Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee. Lawmakers later approved a bill that would establish a compensation process for individuals such as Lee, who were convicted and sent to prison but later exonerated.

The full House passed the bill on April 28. It calls for those who meet specific requirements to receive a minimum of $50,000  for each year they spent behind bars, plus additional expenses for legal fees and lost wages. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The federal government, 29 states and the District of Columbia have similar compensation statutes, Jonas said.

“A Road to Freedom” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Click here for more information.