Senser jury has no quick verdict

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS and LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 2, 2012 - 8:46 AM

Amy Senser's hit-and-run trial went to the jury Tuesday, with a prosecutor arguing that Senser did all she could to avoid the consequences of accidentally killing Anousone Phanthavong, while her attorney accused the state of rushing to make an example of her and her well-known husband.

During two hours of closing arguments, prosecutor Deborah Russell and defense attorney Eric Nelson agreed on one thing -- actions speak louder than words.

Russell contended that Senser must have been drunk or on her cellphone at the time of the Aug. 23, 2011, accident and that her failure to notify or cooperate with authorities afterward showed she was determined to obstruct the investigation as long and as much as possible.

"Their strategy all along was to not cooperate," Russell told the packed courtroom. "They turn over the vehicle, but they don't say who was driving. And [they] can sit back and let people wonder."

But Nelson suggested that prosecutors went after Senser in an unfair manner because of her name, wealth and Edina address. "Amy Senser is a public figure. Her husband is a public figure, and we want to make an example of them,'' he said of prosecutors.

Senser, 45, who's married to former Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser, faces three counts of criminal vehicular homicide for hitting Phanthavong, 38, as he put gas in his stalled vehicle on the Riverside Avenue exit ramp for Interstate 94. Senser has admitted being the driver but maintains she didn't realize she had hit anyone.

The jury got the case at 12:35 p.m. About 5 p.m., jurors returned to the courtroom to ask Judge Daniel Mabley at what point Senser would had to have known she hit someone to be guilty of leaving the scene. Mabley responded that, according to the law, the knowledge must exist at the time of the accident or immediately thereafter.

The jury, which is sequestered, suspended its deliberations about 7 p.m. and will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

'This is the real world'

In her 40-minute closing argument, Russell said that, although Amy Senser took the stand and expressed some relief that "I finally get to speak," she's still trying to evade the consequences of her actions.

"AmyWorld,'' Russell said, invoking a term Joe Senser used to describe his wife's approach to life, is more than a land of free-spiritedness.

"It's a special place," Russell said, "where you have extremely loyal family and friends, where you can testify and say things and people will believe you," she said. "The defendant wants you to think she's this poor person who got lost and discombobulated and somehow didn't know she hit a person."

"This isn't AmyWorld," she said, urging the jury to find Senser guilty on all counts. "This is the real world."

'Speculation and conjecture'

In his 50 minutes, Nelson argued that knowledge, notice and negligence were the key to determining whether an event that occurred in a span of "milliseconds" was a crime. Senser's actions before, during and after the crash were consistent with the claim that she didn't know she'd hit someone, he argued.

"The state has presented nothing but speculation and conjecture of what was inside Mrs. Senser's mind," he said.

Nelson asked the jury to study the records of her phone calls that night, saying they support her contention that she was at a Katy Perry concert in St. Paul and not somewhere getting drunk.

After the crash, Nelson said, Senser's calls reflected her concern that she and her children make it back home, not of someone trying to conceal a crime.

"In eight months," he argued, "no one has come forward to say, 'I saw her in a bar,' or 'She was drunk.' ... There is no evidence that Ms. Senser was anywhere else other than where she said she was."

In her own words

Closing arguments followed a little more than a day's worth of defense testimony by five witnesses, key among them Amy Senser, who testified she thought she had hit a construction barrel or a pothole that night.

Russell pointed to several factors that she said indicated Senser's guilt, including that she would have heard her right front fender hitting Phanthavong because she often drove with her windows open.

"You have the metal of this vehicle bending, you have the headlight shattering and pieces of the vehicle flying everywhere," she said.

Russell also said that the fact that Senser's attorneys surrendered her vehicle to the State Patrol nearly 24 hours after the crash is evidence of failing to notify police. Evidence of drinking and possibly talking on the phone, she said, pointed toward negligence.

A 'fateful decision'

Nelson reiterated that his client admitted ordering a glass of wine that night, but said she didn't finish it. Feeling unwell, she decided to head home instead of waiting for her daughters and their friends at the Xcel Energy Center. But she changed her mind and decided to pick up the girls, using the Riverside Avenue exit as her turnaround.

"That's the fateful decision," Nelson said. "That resulted in the permanent and eternal coupling of Amy Senser and Anousone Phanthavong."

Nelson also asked jurors to consider that the crash scene bore no signs of a driver who knew she was encountering a pedestrian.

"If you know you're about to hit something, you slam on the brakes, you take evasive action," Nelson said.

Once the Sensers were at home, their actions continued to be those of a family going about its normal business, Nelson argued. Amy Senser parked the car in the drive "for all the world to see," he added, and went to sleep on a couch on the deck.

In a short rebuttal, Russell countered that Senser's actions that night were anything but innocent. She said the evidence supports the conclusion that Senser "was intoxicated, home asleep on her porch after failing to pick up her daughters."

asimons@startribune.com • 612-673-4921 loakes@startribune.com • 612-673-1751

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