Moments before she began her 3 1/2-year prison sentence for striking and killing their son on a darkened freeway ramp, Amy Senser turned in her chair, raised her eyes to Anousone Phanthavong's parents and tearfully apologized.
"This isn't about me, and I've waited a long time to say I'm sorry," Senser told Keo and Phouxay Phanthavong. "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's sentencing Monday was punctuated by the Phanthavong family's grief and accompanied by Senser's regret -- so deep, her attorney said, that she had Phanthavong's name tattooed on her wrist. It also marked the first time she said she was sorry, something Phanthavong's family said contributed to their closure as much as a prison sentence.
"It felt [like] a relief to actually hear her come up and speak for herself, and just hear her apology from herself," said a niece, Souksavanh Phanthavong. "She's not listening to all the lawyers and everyone else advising her. It was her."
The remorse appeared genuine, Judge Daniel Mabley said, but it wasn't the same as accepting responsibility.
He rejected the defense request for probation and ordered prison time for her conviction on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide, saying, in part, he was doubtful of Senser's story that she didn't know she struck Phanthavong. He theorized she was "panicked and confused," and believed if she continued driving on, "maybe she could avoid responsibility."
A prison sentence in the highly publicized case, he said, should also serve as a deterrent to what he called an "epidemic" of drivers who leave the scenes of serious or fatal accidents.
The 41-month sentence is the lowest amount of time Senser could receive under state guidelines. She also was fined $6,000 and handed a 90-day sentence for a misdemeanor careless driving conviction that will be served concurrently with the longer term. Senser will serve two-thirds of her sentence at the Minnesota women's prison in Shakopee. She will be eligible for parole in October 2014.
A jury convicted Senser in May of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide for Phanthavong's death -- one count for leaving the scene, the other for failing to notify authorities. She was sentenced for only one conviction because both charges stemmed from a single incident.
Mabley denied a defense motion to allow Senser to remain free pending an appeal. Her husband, ex-Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser, was not at the hearing. Defense attorney Eric Nelson said later he was with the couple's teenage daughters.
'Not enough candor'
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell, who asked Mabley to sentence Senser to the maximum 57 months, said she respects the judge's decision, calling his analysis "thorough and correct."
Russell, a veteran prosecutor of homicides and other violent crimes who is now vying for a judgeship, called Senser's case "one of the most difficult cases to prosecute in my almost 20 years," because of the publicity, circumstantial evidence and lack of eyewitnesses or surveillance cameras.
"I have to prove what was going on in the defendant's mind at the time of the offense," she said. "That was challenging."
Senser, 45, of Edina, struck Phanthavong, 38, as the popular True Thai chef was putting gas in his stalled car on the Riverside Avenue exit off I-94 in Minneapolis on Aug. 23. He died at the scene.
Senser, who drove away, turned her Mercedes-Benz SUV over to authorities through the family's attorney the next day and came forward as the driver nine days later. She claimed at trial that she thought she had struck a construction cone or barrel on the ramp that night and didn't know she had struck a person.
Russell said Joe and Amy Senser's testimony "did provide evidence that I might not otherwise have had." Critical, she said, was their recollection of the morning after the accident regarding how they reacted when they saw the damaged vehicle and realized Amy Senser was involved.
"I think that really told the story of this case," she said.
During the hearing, Nelson implored Mabley to give his client probation, based not only on her remorse and responsibility, but her history of service in the community.
"[The court] knows the gantlet that she had to run every day," he said. "Dozens of cameras. White-hot scrutiny. She knows the vilification she has received as a result of exercising her rights."
Mabley denied the request, in part because he still didn't believe Senser's account of what happened that night, citing, in part, "too many family secrets and not enough candor."
"I don't entirely trust her account," he said. "I trust her remorse, though."
One factor working in her favor, Mabley said, is that Senser's decisions made in the wake of the accident weren't hers alone.
"I think the momentum of her denials and the advice of those she trusted made an impact," he said.
Nelson, who has 90 days to appeal the sentence, said he would not change anything about how he represented her. He plans to remain Senser's attorney.
'We forgive her'
Two large photos of Phanthavong were prominent during sentencing, while his family looked on, clutching each other as they read statements imploring Senser to take responsibility and apologize. A niece, Sayaphone Phouthavongsay, reminisced of a kind, gentle uncle who once offered her $10 to pluck all of his gray hairs. Kono Phanthavong said his brother, who stayed behind in their native Laos to care for an ailing grandfather, arrived when he was 16. At first the brothers suffered a culture clash, he said, but connected over dreams to open a restaurant together.
"Now it will never happen, he said. "My older brother is gone forever."
Still, they said, he would want them to forgive.
Before Senser spoke, Souksavanh Phanthavong read a letter from Anousone's boss and best friend, True Thai restaurant owner Anna Prasamphol Fieser. The letter cited a Buddhist saying that compared anger to picking up a hot coal to throw at someone else, burning the thrower as well.
"Anousone would not want me to spend the rest of my life picking up hot coals," she said.
Senser broke down, her face in her hands.
"I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm sorry."
After the hearing, as deputies waited to escort Senser away, she turned again to Phanthavong's family. His mother, Keo, reached her arms over the railing and the two embraced, sobbing.
"Amy was apologizing," Souksavanh Phanthavong said afterward. "She was taking her apology."
Staff writers Gail Rosenblum and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Abby Simons • 612-673-4921