Bob Hilliard hadn’t planned on spending his summer working to release Koua Fong Lee from a Minnesota prison. “I didn’t have any interest or any calling to start freeing people from jail,” he told Super Lawyers. “But the stars just aligned slowly, one at a time.”
In 2006, Lee, of St. Paul, was driving a Toyota Camry when it suddenly accelerated and crashed into an Oldsmobile, killing three people. When Lee insisted he had been braking and had no control over the vehicle’s increasing speed, none of the right people believed him. He was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.
After reports of other Toyota owners experiencing the same uncontrollable acceleration led to a massive recall, Hilliard, a personal injury lawyer at Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi, Texas, received a phone call. It was from a Minnesota attorney looking into a lawsuit against Toyota. Would Hilliard travel north and look into the case?
“I got up there and thought about the guy being in jail and he’s got four kids and it was clear that it was a Toyota issue and not a driver issue,” Hilliard says. He changed his focus.
He met with Lee and his family and then joined up with criminal defense attorney Brent Schafer, of Minnesota’s Schafer Law Firm, and they got to work.
The attorneys took the case pro bono and after spending about $150,000 and obtaining a new trial–the only four days in Hilliard’s legal career that he was a criminal defense lawyer, he says–the two were able to convince Judge Joanne Smith that Lee was not at fault. He was released from prison in August.
“Walking him out of jail was hugely, hugely amazing,” Hilliard says. “It’s hugely powerful as he comes out and grabs his wife for the first time in three years.”
The Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) presented Schafer and Hilliard with its first-ever “Never Forgotten” award last week for their dedication in freeing Lee. IPMN collaborated with the attorneys and put together the affidavits from witnesses of other Toyotas who also experienced unintended acceleration–testimony that played a large role in the court’s ruling.
Hilliard and Schafer were also officially adopted into the Hmong community in a traditional ceremony honoring the release of Lee.