Amy Senser knew she hit someone, jury finds

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS and LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2012 - 11:18 AM

Jurors convicted Amy Senser of criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Anousone Phanthavong. She was convicted of failing to immediately call for help and leaving the scene.

When the jurors filed into the courtroom, anyone who looked into their faces could guess that Amy Senser was in trouble.

Several of them looked stricken and weary, and one dabbed her tear-filled eyes with a white tissue.

Moments later, a clerk read their verdicts: Senser was guilty of striking and killing Anousone Phanthavong on Aug. 23 on a Minneapolis freeway ramp and of leaving the scene without calling for help.

After the jury left the room, Senser leaned forward, shoulders slumped, hands on the defense table, and appeared to cry. Her husband, Joe Senser, stood behind her and patted her shoulders.

The convictions Thursday brought to a close eight months of media scrutiny and public speculation over the degree to which Senser would be held accountable for Phanthavong's death. After nearly 20 hours of deliberation, the verdicts brought relief to the family of the victim, a 38-year-old Laotian immigrant who was putting gas in his stalled vehicle when he was struck by Senser's Mercedes-Benz SUV.

"It felt like bricks were taken off our shoulders," one of Phanthavong's relatives, Sayaphone Phouthavongsay, said later.

Senser, a 45-year-old Edina resident, was convicted of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide: failing to immediately call for help and leaving the scene. She was acquitted of operating a vehicle in a grossly negligent manner. The convictions call for four years in prison under state guidelines. She also was found guilty of misdemeanor careless driving.

Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley will sentence her July 9. She remains free on bail.

Equal playing field

Speaking for the Phanthavong family, attorney James Ballentine said the verdicts showed that "the ground in front of the door of the Minnesota criminal justice system is level."

Senser and her husband, the former Minnesota Vikings star turned restaurateur, left court without speaking to reporters. Her attorney, Eric Nelson, said she was shocked and fearful.

"She has insisted that she didn't see [Phanthavong], and she wants the world to believe that's the truth," Nelson said. "And when you're apparently not believed about that, that's difficult."

Nelson said he'll argue against a prison sentence, "but I think she's prepared for that possibility, and it certainly scares her."

Tension and relief

Tension in the courtroom was thick as Senser and her family took their seats to wait for the decision. Several of Phanthavong's relatives also were in attendance.

Mabley asked Senser and Nelson to stand, and the clerk read the verdicts. Senser stood stone-faced as she heard her fate, her jaw set.

Neither her family, seated in rows behind her, nor Phanthavong's reacted visibly. The Phanthavong family left the courtroom, looking somber, immediately after Mabley thanked the jury for its service and dismissed its members.

Most of the Senser family remained in the courtroom, huddled together. After Joe Senser comforted his wife, he hugged other members of his family and the defense team, firmly embracing Nelson.

Amy Senser smiled only once, briefly, while Nelson consoled her. Later, he said she'd smiled because he pointed out that she would not immediately be taken into custody. If she receives a four-year sentence, Senser might serve only two years and eight months with good behavior.

He said she likely will apologize to the Phanthavongs at her sentencing, something she has refrained from doing because of the pending criminal case and wrongful-death lawsuit the family has filed against the Sensers.

Appeal planned

Nelson said he plans to appeal on a number of grounds, citing specifically what constitutes notification under state laws. He maintained that the Sensers' decision to turn over the Mercedes to authorities the day after the accident constituted notification. He also cited the exclusion from the trial of a toxicology report from Phanthavong's autopsy, which showed a high level of cocaine in his system.

Nelson said he couldn't say whether public opinion may have influenced the jurors. He said they should have been sequestered throughout the trial, not just during deliberations, because they unintentionally could have been exposed to media coverage.

It's hard, he said, to speculate on the jury's reasons for convicting his client.

"I don't fault the jurors," he said. "I don't fault the system. Ms. Senser got a fair trial; she got a fair opportunity to be heard. I'm disappointed with the decision, but we'll move on."

He said he decided to put her on the stand months ago.

"I don't know that I could do anything different," he said.

The case centered on the prosecution's contention that Senser knew she hit a person with her vehicle. The defense argued that Senser thought she hit a construction cone or a barrel.

The jurors left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, but a juror reached later said the case was challenging because it came down to circumstantial evidence.

Jameson "Jay" Larson said the jury spent much of Thursday trying to determine whether Senser knew she hit a person. He said jurors went through her testimony and the evidence such as phone records before convicting her. Larson also said jurors decided they would not deadlock.

The trial began April 23. The jury got the case at 12:35 p.m. Tuesday, began deliberating about 2 p.m. that day and continued until Thursday afternoon.

'Justice has been done'

The verdicts brought relief and satisfaction to workers at the True Thai restaurant, where Phanthavong spent more than eight years.

"Justice has been done," owner Chuck Whitney said. The restaurant's employees followed each turn of the case, fearing "there would be no consequences or very little" by the trial's end. But the verdicts and prospect of a four-year sentence are "fair," Whitney said. 

"That will be a considerable sentence that will give [Senser] a chance to think about what happened that night," said Whitney, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Anna Fieser. "We haven't seen any remorse from her."

Whitney, his wife and more than two dozen employees are reminded each day about the loss of Phanthavong, who worked his way up from prep work in the kitchen to head chef.

"He was just a sweetheart of a guy. He was always so calm. If things got hectic, I would be hollering and he would say, 'I got this. Calm down,'" Whitney said. "You wouldn't dare call him with a question on his day off because he immediately would say, 'I'll be there in 10 minutes.' He loved working here."

On the night he was killed, Phanthavong was on his way to the restaurant to borrow $20 so he could put gas in his car before coming to work the next day, Whitney said. The car sputtered to a halt on the ramp, less than a quarter-mile from the restaurant.

Whitney remembers members of the State Patrol ringing his doorbell at 3 a.m., hours after the accident, to tell him his employee had been killed and to ask how they could reach Phanthavong's family.

"It was just horrible," Whitney said.

He returned to the restaurant the next morning and, under a brick, found the $20 in gas money he'd left that Phanthavong never got.

Staff writers M.L. Smith and Matt McKinney and the Associated Press contributed to this report. loakes@startribune.com • 612-269-0504 asimons@startribune.com • 612-673-4921

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