Police urge patience in fatal hit-and-run involving Senser vehicle

Amy Senser
This photo provided by Halberg Criminal Defense law firm taken on Sept. 1, 2011, shows Amy Senser, wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Joe Senser, in a Bloomington, Minn., law office. Attorney Marsh Halberg says Amy Senser acknowledges she was the driver of an SUV believed involved in a hit-and-run that killed a pedestrian, in a signed statement to the Minnesota State Patrol Friday, Sept. 2, 2011.
AP Photo/Halberg Criminal Defense law firm

It's been a week since a Bloomington attorney identified the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser as the driver of a fatal hit and run accident. But there hasn't been an arrest or any charges in the case, even though investigators have the car and a suspect.

That's not unusual. Authorities around the Twin Cities say investigating and prosecuting such cases takes time, and it is not unusual to go weeks or more before a formal criminal case is charged.

"There are significant delays often with criminal vehicular homicide investigations," Dakota County attorney Jim Backstrom said. "It takes the State Patrol quite a while to finish their reconstruction report. There's no prosecutor that's going to charge a case without the reconstruction report."

A fatal crash last spring is a good example. A truck driver from Reinhart Foodservice slammed into the back of traffic that had stopped for road construction on Interstate 35 in Lakeville. Experts estimate he was doing 68 mph and never braked.

The chain-reaction crash killed two women and released clouds of bees, closing the interstate for hours.

But it wasn't until almost a year later -- this past May 2 -- that the truck driver faced criminal charges. A Dakota County grand jury indicted Jason Strybicki on three counts of criminal vehicular homicide and a count of careless driving.

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Backstrom isn't involved in the high-profile crash involving Amy Senser in the hit-and-run death of Anousone Phanthavong on Aug. 23. But he says charging decisions are particularly difficult in cases such as this in which a suspect is identified long after the actual crash. Blood and other tests can't determine if a driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol. Even the victim can figure into the legal calculation.

"You would have to prove that the person driving the vehicle caused someone's death, in essence through their negligence that they caused a death [and] it wasn't just someone that darted out in the middle of traffic, for example," he said.

But Backstrom also says that a change in state law in 1996 made simply fleeing the scene of a fatal accident a condition for charging a driver with criminal vehicular homicide.

Authorities won't talk about the Senser case while it's under investigation. But State Patrol spokesman Eric Roeske says the investigation into the crash will follow its own timeline, and counsels patience for those who wonder why Amy Senser hasn't been charged, even after saying she was driving the SUV that left the scene of the crash.

"There's the notion that someone else, whoever else that would be, a normal citizen, would be in jail right now. We're not focused on putting someone in jail right now," he said. "We're focused on gathering evidence for a criminal conviction. And if it takes a couple of weeks to do that, we recognize that it's just going to take that long. We don't want put together a shoddy case and rush through something."

The Senser's attorney has also said the family has offered DNA, cell phone and credit card information to authorities. Any one of those could require additional laboratory time, more search warrants, and even tracking down other people who might have been present when a credit card was swiped.

"That's not just stuff we can snap our fingers and do," Roeske said. "And, you know, it wouldn't be fair to the families who have lost loved ones in other cases to say, you know, we're going to put your case on the back burner because we have someone that is well known involved in a particular case, and we're going to put that head of your loved one's investigation."

Phanthavong's family members have said they are frustrated by the delay involved in filing charges in the case. But authorities investigating the case say the careful process is proceeding as it should.