Amy Senser sentenced to 41 months in prison

Amy Senser sentencing
Amy Senser, right, arrives Monday, July 9, 2012, at the Hennepin County Courthouse for her sentencing on two felony counts stemming from a fatal hit-and-run crash last summer.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A Hennepin County District Court judge sentenced Amy Senser Monday to nearly 41 months in prison for the hit-and-run death of a Roseville man.

In August 2011, Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser, struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong on the side of a freeway ramp and left the scene. She was convicted in May on two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide.

Before her sentence was handed down Monday, Amy Senser, 45, turned to the Phanthavong family and asked for their forgiveness. Senser sobbed and apologized to them.

"I've waited a long time to say I'm sorry. I hope you can believe me that I never saw your son that night and if I had I would have stopped to help him," Senser said, turning in her seat to face Phanthavong's relatives in the courtroom. "I take full responsibility for his death. It was my fault."

"I wish I could go back to that night and change so many things," she said. "I hope someday you will forgive me. I'm so very sorry."

Before Senser left the courtroom, she spent as much time as she could hugging and personally apologizing to members of the Phanthavong family, according to her attorney Eric Nelson. He added that Senser got Anousone Phanthavong's name tattooed on one of her wrists after the trial.

"This avoidance of responsibility was not out of panic or confusion. It was orchestrated."

"She carries a very heavy burden. She describes it as being responsible for his soul. And in any way she can possibly have a daily reminder of him," said Nelson. "Even as time goes by and life becomes easier for everyone, she wants to be constantly reminded of the responsibility that she has towards Mr. Phanthavong and Mr. Phanthavong's family."

Members of Phanthavong's family read victim impact statements in the courtroom. Phanthavong's brother, Kono, said he and Anousone dreamed of opening their own restaurant one day. But he said that dream would never come true.

Phanthavong was a chef at True Thai restaurant in Minneapolis. The co-owner of the restaurant, Anna Feiser, wrote a letter that was read aloud by one of Phanthavong's nieces.

In it, Feiser mentioned that Phanthavong was a Buddhist. She said Phanthavong told her Buddha urged people to forgive those who wronged them, and equated holding grudges with holding on to hot coals that burn the person with the grudge.

Feiser wrote that she thinks Phanthavong would have forgiven Senser. But Feiser said in order to be forgiven, Senser would have to take responsibility for her crime.

"The family believes her remorse is real," said attorney Jim Schwebel, whose firm represented the Phanthavongs in a civil suit settled with the Senser family.

"A person would have to be a psychopath not to experience remorse after an event like this. But nevertheless, the law requires accountability," said Schwebel. "And it would be a sad state of affairs if a crime of this nature could go unpunished or with merely probation."

During the hearing, Judge Daniel Mabley said he received more than 100 letters from friends, family and supporters of Senser. However, none of them spoke on Senser's behalf at the sentencing. Her husband, Joe Senser, was not in the courtroom. Nelson said he was with the couple's daughters.

Amy Senser On Trial
May 4: Senser, victim's family settle lawsuit
May 3: Amy Senser guilty on two felony counts
April 30: Senser says she had no idea she hit victim
May 27: State Patrol reconstructs scene
May 25: Joe Senser: Wife thought she hit construction cone

On the night of Aug. 23, 2011, Phanthavong, 38, was putting gas in his car on the Riverside exit ramp from I-94. Senser testified during trial that the ramp was dark and she was looking in the other direction when her Mercedes Benz SUV struck Phanthavong and threw his body nearly 50 feet.

Mabley said Senser's remorse rang true, but he wasn't satisfied with her account of what happened that night. Mabley said Senser avoided taking responsibility, even after the panic immediately following the crash had subsided. "This avoidance of responsibility was not out of panic or confusion. It was orchestrated," Mabley told an overflowing courtroom in Minneapolis. "A certain momentum develops around these denials."

Mabley said he doesn't know how a reasonable person could feel and hear such an impact and not stop. He said he thinks Senser panicked and decided that if she continued driving, she could put it all behind her.

Mabley said he felt it was important for the sentence to serve as a deterrent to other drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents.

"Persons leaving the scenes of accidents are becoming epidemic in Minnesota," he said.

Assistant Hennepin County attorney Deborah Russell had requested a sentence that was nearly a year and a half longer than the one imposed by Judge Mabley. Still, Russell said she's satisfied with the sentence.

"He sentenced her to a prison sentence which is the presumptive sentence for somebody with no criminal history, which is just like Ms. Senser," said Russell. "He treated her just like any other person who would come before him having committed this same offense. I thought his analysis was thorough and it was correct."

Russell said this case was an especially tough one because it relied heavily on circumstantial evidence.

"Obviously when you don't have an eyewitness or a surveillance camera to show exactly what happened -- and then I have to prove what was going on in a defendant's mind at the time of the offense -- that is challenging," said Russell.

When asked if she thought Senser was impaired on the night of the hit and run, Russell said the State Patrol told her there are three main reasons people leave the scene of an accident -- They don't have a driver's license; they have outstanding warrants; or they have been drinking.

"We know she had a valid driver's license and we know she didn't have any warrants out. So, I can't comment on her level of impairment because we never got any evidence that specifically addressed that," said Russell.

During the trial, Senser admitted to having a partial glass of wine the night of the crash, but denied being drunk.

Under state law, Senser is required to serve at least two-thirds of her sentence in prison. She will serve the remaining third on probation.

Senser was also sentenced to 90 days in the Hennepin County workhouse for a misdemeanor careless driving conviction. that time will be included in the probation period, so Senser will not spend time in the workhouse, according to Russell.

Senser was taken into custody immediately after the sentence was announced. Her attorney Eric Nelson said he will file an appeal in the next 90 days.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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