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How a Pioneer Press reporter helped free Koua Fong Lee

“It’s hard not to pursue what’s right,” says courts reporter Emily Gurnon, whose own paper — and a defense lawyer — credit with getting the ball rolling on case that eventually freed a man sentenced to eight years for criminal vehicular homicide.

Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario has a remarkable Koua Fong Lee column this morning celebrating his colleague, courts reporter Emily Gurnon. Under the headline “Justice gets help from reporter, not lawyers entrusted with it,” Rosario writes:

Lee went to the slammer. We forgot about him. But Pioneer Press courts reporter Emily Gurnon, who covered the trial, did not forget. She remembered the case as she listened to a radio news report about the massive Toyota recall scandal.

Gurnon contacted Brent Schafer, who represented Lee at sentencing after the initial defense attorney was fired by his family for what essentially would be proven as ineffective assistance of counsel.

Schafer and another well-heeled attorney, Bob Hilliard, agreed to take up Lee’s cause pro bono and followed through on the recall reports.

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Rosario goes on to note prosecutors “essentially reamed” Gurnon for reporting exculpatory evidence. That evidence eventually won Lee, whose 1996 Camry killed three people in 2006, a new trial. Before the case was re-heard, County Attorney Susan Gaertner dropped the criminal vehicular homicide charges that kept Lee in jail for two years of an eight-year sentence.

In the end, Rosario’s column portrays Gurnon as the epitome of the Pioneer Press’s mascot, a justice-seeking bulldog.

So did Gurnon’s reporting result in Lee’s exoneration? Seeking more details, I talked to Schafer and Gurnon this morning.

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.

“She said, ‘Have you thought about this recall issue?’,” Schafer recalls. “Emily made the first call, and I give her a great deal of credit for remembering it. I think I would’ve come up with the connection regardless, but she spearheaded the entire thing.”

Although Rosario wrote that “Gurnon broke the news of the potentially new and troubling evidence that could lead to a new trial for Lee,” Schafer — regretfully — says that isn’t true.

A couple of days after they connected, Gurnon told Schafer that she had discovered Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry still in the impound lot. “Emily wanted to break the story, but I asked her to wait a day to get my ducks in a row,” the lawyer remembers. “I had to write a letter to [government officials]; I wanted to make sure everybody didn’t touch the car. Then, all of a sudden, TV cameras showed up.”

Schafer thinks his then-partners may have tipped off Gurnon’s competition; in any event, at least one station broke the story on the 5 p.m. news. Gurnon had done the ethical thing and waited; if you want to know why journalists sometimes don’t, here’s one example why.

Says Gurnon, “He called me to say TV was on their way over there, so go ahead and run my story. I’d been putting information together for a week, so I had something fairly detailed. We put it on the website [after 5], and it ran in the paper the next day. I was a little disappointed about that, but it wasn’t about me.”

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In any event, Schafer — who gave Gurnon specific credit in a news conference after the charges were dropped — says, “she was the first one to bring it to my attention, and I give her credit all day long. She was on it like a dog.”

Having ignited a story, Gurnon then had to manage it. There shouldn’t be a disconnect between a crusading reporter and a fair reporter, but any time sources perceive you “have an agenda,” they can use that to undermine coverage even if the facts tilt against them.

Gurnon, who covered Lee’s original trial, said, “I always felt the case had enough merit to be really seriously looked at, and also felt that, despite words to the contrary, that the county attorney’s office was more or less giving lip service to the idea of finding new evidence or seeking justice for Lee.”

But with those feelings, did that mean she’d put her own fingers on the scale of justice, favoring evidence that favored Lee?

“I did think about that a lot, and got a lot of flak,” from the county attorney’s office, Gurnon says. “I was reminded by them on several occasions that I needed to be fair, and I agreed with them on that. I responded to their criticism by bringing out other points in subsequent stories [see an example here], so I don’t think I turned a blind eye to their concerns.”

She says her bosses were consistently supportive. “They said, ‘Go get ’em,’ and I was pleased my stories got really good play. They put a lot on 1A, and of course, reporters love that.”

As for balancing professional opinions with professional reportage, Gurnon says, “It’s hard not to pursue what we feel is the ultimate right.”

Eventually, a judge, the victims’ family, and even Gaerntner agreed.