Some legal experts expected outcome; others surprised

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 11:35 PM

"There's some closure for everybody, a little bit," one legal observer said. Some said they were surprised by the verdict.

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Jurors in the Amy Senser case left the Hennepin County Governmenet Center on Thursday after convicting her on two of three counts in the death of Anousone Phanthavong. The jury deliberated for nearly 20 hours. Sentencing is set for July 9.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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As news of Amy Senser's conviction spread across the Twin Cities, reactions from legal experts who watched the trial closely ranged widely.

"I was trying to think about, when I heard the verdict, why I feel sad. But I do," said Hamline University Law School Prof. Joseph Daly, a onetime prosecutor and defense attorney. "I'm not quite sure why, other than I had in my mind that she would not be convicted of the first two counts. I think I believe her."

Senser's testimony, and subsequent conviction on two counts of felony criminal vehicular homicide for the death of Anousone Phanthavong, was interpreted differently by another veteran defense attorney.

"I just had a hard time believing her," St. Paul lawyer Earl Gray said. "What's really a shame is that she could very well be telling the truth, and sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction."

Ryan Pacyga, a 10-year criminal defense attorney, said he was surprised by the result. There was too much reasonable doubt, he believed, to convict Senser on any of the counts.

"I think it was a hard case for the government to prove, and I'm just not sure that you could," he said, adding that both the prosecution and defense versions of events were plausible.

Pacyga said that he expects Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley to hand down the four-year sentence established by guidelines. Defense attorney Eric Nelson's vow to appeal based on the law's definition of what constitutes notifying authorities is "untested waters," Pacyga added, and he'll be surprised if the conviction is overturned.

"Both sides presented their cases well; that's evident by the fact that the jury took so long to reach an important decision," he said. "The chips fall where they do now; there's some closure for everybody, a little bit."

Joseph Tamburino, a 23-year criminal defense attorney who watched much of the trial, said the lengthy deliberations led him to believe a conviction was coming.

He wasn't surprised by the acquittal on the gross negligence count, he said, which had a high threshold of proof.

"My experience has been that if the jury believes your client, the defendant, they usually ... come back within 24 hours," he said.

The seven-day trial included dozens of witnesses and pieces of evidence, each of which bore significance for Senser's credibility.

Gray said he was bothered by Senser's deletion of her text messages, which could have been an issue for the jury. But because jurors deliberated more than 19 hours before reaching a decision, some of them must have believed her testimony, he said.

Daly said part of his surprise came because of testimony by the defense's accident reconstructionist, who said Phanthavong would have been crouched or bent over at the time he was struck, making him difficult to see.

"I didn't think it would ever become this big of a media and public interest story," Tamburino said of the trial. "It just snowballed."

All in all, one thing was clear, he said: "Ms. Senser should know that she got a fair trial and a very good defense."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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