Amy Senser hit-and-run case goes to jury

Amy Senser and attorney Eric Nelson
Amy Senser and her attorney, Eric Nelson, photographed inside the atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center on Monday, April 30, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Jurors began deliberations in the Amy Senser hit-and-run case today.

Senser, the wife of former Viking Joe Senser, is charged in Hennepin County with three counts of criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Anousone Phanthavong. A key element jurors will have to decide is whether or not Senser knew she struck Phantavong.

Prosecutors do not have any direct evidence that Amy Senser knew she struck and killed 38-year-old Anousone Phanthavong as he stood next to his stalled car on the side of an exit ramp last August. No witnesses came forward to say they saw Senser hit Phanthavong, acknowledge it and drive away. The state's case has centered on circumstantial evidence. Leading for the prosecution, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell explained to jurors during her closing argument, that circumstantial evidence is like a collection of clues that can help them draw their conclusions.

Russell said Senser deleted text messages sent and received by her on the day after the collision; she gave away the clothes she had worn that night and she changed her hair color, after an eyewitness described seeing her driving erratically about a half an hour after the crash.

Russell also said Senser's account of the moment of impact was not credible. By several estimates, Senser was traveling between 40 and 55 mph at the time she hit Phanthavong. Senser claimed she felt a jolt and heard a clunk. But Russell told jurors to examine photos taken of the damage to Senser's SUV. She said the impact bent part of the metal hood and shattered the front right headlight, sending pieces of the car flying. Russell also told jurors to consider that Senser probably had the car windows rolled down, even though Senser claimed they were not. Joe Senser testified during the trial that his wife almost always drove with the windows down.

Russell also said there is circumstantial evidence to show Senser was intoxicated. After the collision, Senser said she drove home and fell asleep on a couch on the front porch of the house. One of Senser's daughters testified she tried to wake Senser up and talk to her, but could not. Senser's husband and other daughter testified that she was not drunk.

But Russell pointed to inconsistencies between some of the family members' testimony and concluded that they weren't going to say anything that would hurt Senser. Russell said Senser was living in "Amyworld" — a term Joe Senser used to describe his wife's propensity to go off on adventures by herself or with their daughters. Russell described "Amyworld" as a place where family and friends are loyal to her and will believe what she says.

"This is not 'Amyworld,' " Russell said to the jury. "This is the real world."

Defense attorney Eric Nelson told the jury there is overwhelming evidence showing Senser did not know she struck Phanthavong. State Patrol investigators found no tire marks from Senser's SUV at the crash scene to show that she tried to avoid hitting Phanthavong. Senser testified that she was looking to her left as she drove up the I-94 exit ramp at Riverside Ave. Senser said she does not remember seeing Phathavong's car on the side of the road. Senser said she never saw Phanthavong.

Nelson also told jurors to consider evidence showing that Senser was not on her mobile phone at the time of the impact. An expert witness for the defense testified that Senser made a phone call at eight minutes, 58 seconds past 11 p.m. The first 911 emergency call made by a witness on the scene came just seven seconds later. The expert testified it would have taken much longer than seven seconds for the witness to stop his vehicle, find the victim's body and make the call.

Nelson told the jury that the case can be boiled down to a matter of seconds. He said it took three to four seconds for Senser's SUV to reach Phanthavong once she entered the exit ramp. And Nelson said the impact happened in about one-tenth of a second.

Nelson told jurors the state of Minnesota rushed to judgment against Senser. He said the prosecution is trying to make an example out of Senser because she and her husband are public figures.

Court officials say if Senser is convicted of criminal vehicular homicide, she faces four years in prison. The jury may also consider a lesser charge of careless driving, if they do not believe her actions constituted 'gross negligence.'

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