Now that an investigation is complete, Amy Senser's attorney said Thursday that evidence prosecutors could use against her in her upcoming trial for the hit-and-run death of a Roseville man will exonerate her by proving she didn't know she struck him before she left the scene.
In her second court appearance since she was charged with criminal vehicular homicide in September, Senser, 45, answered to a second felony count filed against her last week for allegedly failing to call for help after she struck Anousone Phanthavong, 38, on an Interstate 94 exit ramp at Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis Aug. 23.
Her attorney, Eric Nelson, maintains Senser did not know she struck someone that night. Although she has not formally entered a not guilty plea, a trial is scheduled for April 23.
Jim Ballentine, a lawyer for Phanthavong's family in a wrongful-death lawsuit, says he is confident in the case the county attorney is building against Senser.
Senser's court appearances had been repeatedly delayed while the State Patrol completed accident reconstruction and gathered evidence. Now that the investigation is done, Nelson said it revealed additional proof that Senser didn't know she struck Phanthavong. He would not say what that evidence was.
During the hearing, which lasted about a minute, Senser said only "No" when Nelson asked her if he needed to read the most recent charge filed against her. Senser was joined by her husband, former Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser. They declined to comment, as did the Hennepin County attorney's office.
Nelson plans to file a motion asking Judge Daniel Mabley to dismiss the charges against her for a lack of probable cause. He has until Feb. 3, and prosecutors have two weeks to respond.
A road map for the defense
Nelson said he was not surprised by the additional charge against Senser and said they're similar to those in the case of Mohammed Al-Naseer, whose 2010 criminal vehicular homicide conviction was reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court on the basis that prosecutors must now prove criminal intent by drivers who leave the scene of accidents. Nelson said he intends to base much of his defense on that case.
"Comparing the facts of that decision to the facts and investigation of this case, has revealed certain exculpatory evidence, which is proof of innocence," Nelson said. "Or in this case, proof of lack of knowledge."
Ballentine and relatives of Phanthavong, a popular chef at True Thai in Minneapolis who was known to friends as "Ped," also attended the hearing.
The Phanthavongs sued the Sensers in September, but a Hennepin County judge placed the case on hold until at least February while criminal proceedings continued. The Phanthavongs' attorneys contested the stay but were turned down by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The next hearing in the civil case is scheduled for Feb. 6.
After the hearing, Ballentine commended Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell for moving the criminal case along "as fast as she can."
He criticized Senser for doing what he called "the absolute minimum" in cooperating with police, which has slowed the prosecution and the civil proceedings.
The day after the incident, Nelson directed investigators to a sport-utility vehicle, which they found at the Sensers' Edina home with blood on the hood. Nine days later, the Sensers sent a statement to the State Patrol admitting Amy Senser was the driver.
'Justice delayed ... denied'
Since then, the Sensers have refused to speak with investigators, invoking their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. "There's an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied," Ballentine said. "We think, as far as our wrongful death claim on behalf of the family, that's exactly what happened. But we'll press on as best as we can."
Nelson said the suggestion that the case was delayed because of Senser "couldn't be further from the truth," and added that she has a right to avoid self-incrimination. Because of the criminal and civil proceedings, Nelson said, Senser is unable to express her grief to Phanthavong's family.
"She has really struggled to come to grips with what happened here, because she maintains steadfastly that she did not know she hit Ped," Nelson said. "It's hard for her to even understand that it was her vehicle involved, and she grieves for this family."
Senser is scheduled to make her next court appearance March 9.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921