Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Emily Gurnon, Hero of the Koua Fong Lee Case

Emily GurnonWe've all heard about Koua Fong Lee's pro bono lawyers, and about Trudy Baltazar who organized the protests, and even about BadAndy, a California man who set up the Free Koua Fong Lee Facebook page. And, of course, Lee himself and his wife, Panhoua Moua, who never gave up.

But I had absolutely no awareness that Pioneer Press reporter Emily Gurnon is largely responsible for the fact that Lee is a free man.

Gurnon covered the original trial in 2007 (a snippet of one of her articles from that time can be seen here). According to her colleague Ruben Rosario in today's PiPress, Gurnon never forgot the case after the trial ended. And it was Gurnon who contacted attorney Brent Schafer to ask if he had heard about the cases of unintended acceleration among Toyota drivers.

MinnPost's David Brauer followed up on Rosario's column, checking with Schafer to ask for his recollection of Gurnon's actions. Brauer writes, "Schafer says he was vaguely aware of the Toyota recall news as it swirled last winter, but he was in trial when the news hit so didn't really focus on it. Gurnon called his office three times that week; he finally called her back on a Friday afternoon."

Gurnon was also a guest on the local PBS affiliate TPT2's show Almanac on Friday night after Lee was released. I caught part of the interview, which was when I first realized I had completely missed how this story came to reach the spotlight it deserved.

In January or February this year, Gurnon wrote about Lee's case, raising the issue of Toyota's problems. (I don't know exactly when, since the Pioneer Press has the terrible habit of removing stories from its own site after a few months.) But it was well before I started noticing the stories. I didn't write about it until March 7 -- probably after I'd seen several stories, and the Star Tribune had also followed her lead. Here's one of Gurnon's early stories (from February 14, reposted to a Hmong community website), though not the first one.

Thanks to Emily Gurnon for doing her job well, and for not backing down despite negativity from the County Attorney's office. According to Rosario, they tried to tell her she was biased. He wrote, "A senior attorney in the [County Attorney's] office called Gurnon and essentially reamed her about her 'biased' coverage. I know this because I sit right in front of Gurnon. She handled it in a far more professional manner than I would have done."

If Emily Gurnon is biased, I hope we all are similarly biased in favor of justice.

1 comment:

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I'm so glad that Ruben Rosario wrote today about her role. She deserves an award. And she's the perfect candidate to write a book about the case.