Rosenblum: What we can learn from Senser trial

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2012 - 5:53 AM
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Amy Senser and attorney Eric Nelson waited in the security line at the Government Center on Monday.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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The fairness or unfairness of Amy Senser's 41-month sentence is likely to be debated for a while, but it's easy to agree there was little ordinary about this hit-and-run case. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell said it was "one of the most difficult cases to prosecute" in her almost 20-year career, due to constant media coverage, a voracious public appetite and no eyewitness accounts.

I doubt Russell is the only person relieved that it's over.

Before this unforgettable trial becomes yesterday's news, a few observations:

While prosecutors are pleased that justice was served, the fact remains that class and race issues still lurk just below the surface.

From the moment this story broke nearly 11 months ago, raw frustration sprang from readers of color, as well as the less affluent, certain that they would quickly have been looking at the inside of a jail cell had they been the driver. Senser, married to former Viking and restaurant owner Joe Senser, remained free until Monday's sentencing on two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide.

While Russell confidently said Judge Daniel Mabley treated Senser "just like anyone else who had come before him," not all are buying it as a general rule. As much progress as we've made to create a color- and connections-blind criminal justice system, we still have work to do to change perceptions and, perhaps, policies.

Our collective emotional investment in this trial was peculiar at best, troubling at worst. Not everybody exhibited schadenfreude, delight in another's misfortune. But most of us exhibited ownership, talking about the case, speculating, judging.

Star Tribune digital media editor Terry Sauer said the guilty verdict for Senser, announced May 3, created "probably the largest crush of Web audience over a 30-minute period since Brett Favre was being driven from the airport to Winter Park after he signed a couple of years ago."

That's just the thing. We made sport of these people's lives. Hateful, victim-blaming comments about Phanthavong on online news sites stunned his family and friends. Plenty of others made crass jokes about Senser. The night before sentencing, a guy one table over from me at a restaurant was explaining to his date why Senser, someone he'd never met, "had to know she hit someone."

I don't even want to guess how many betting pools were running Monday morning leading up to sentencing.

Whatever we believe happened here, we need to remember that these are real people, with grieving families, not reality show contestants who can opt out.

Speaking of grieving, the morning of sentencing looked like a funeral procession. Spectators and members of the media parted in the hallway as a sobbing Keo Phanthavong, Anousone's mother, was led into the courtroom, surrounded by her family. She was followed moments later by relatives and friends of Senser, then Senser herself, a shell of a woman in a dark suit, accompanied by her attorney, Eric Nelson, but not Joe, who was elsewhere, giving emotional support to their daughters.

If there was a winner here, I missed it.

On a more hopeful note, integrity is not lost.

Phanthavong's friend and boss at True Thai Restaurant, Anna Prasomphol Fieser, said that when some of the young members of Phanthavong's family had critical things to say about Senser's testimony last spring, "older family members discouraged that kind of talk, even though there were no Lao-speaking reporters around" who could understand them. We could learn from the Phanthavongs.

And on the most hopeful note, never underestimate the healing power of a genuine apology.

Phanthavong's family got what they have been waiting for, and what Senser had been waiting to say, issued deeply from her heart.

Senser, who had broken down several times as victim-impact statements were read, turned to the Phanthavong family, speaking softly and, at times, haltingly.

"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. I take full responsibility for his death and that it was my fault. I just hope someday you can forgive me for taking Anousone from you. I wish I could go back to that night and change things.

"I don't know why our fates have come together," Senser said, "but if you will let me, I will do whatever I can to honor his name. I'm just so sorry."

Before being led away, Senser embraced Keo, who cried in Senser's arms.

That apology, Fieser believes, will free Senser "from the terrible burden" she carries. Fieser promised to pray for Senser and her family "every night that you are away from them."

Mostly, the apology "allows us to get on with our lives," Fieser said, "remembering Anousone Phanthavong, the man, instead of lamenting Anousone Phanthavong, the victim."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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