Appeals Court panel acknowledged trial judge’s errors but said they didn’t affect verdicts against Amy Senser.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld Amy Senser’s felony criminal vehicular homicide convictions Monday, ruling the evidence was clear that she knew she struck a car or a person when she left the scene of a fatal accident nearly two years ago.
The court acknowledged the trial court judge’s missteps in the case but said they were not enough to have affected the outcome of the jury’s decision.
In the unanimous decision, a three-judge panel said overwhelming circumstantial evidence supports a Hennepin County jury’s guilty verdicts against the wife of former Minnesota Vikings player Joe Senser. The panel also determined that the events following the deadly hit-and-run crash show Senser was aware she hit more than a traffic barrel when she struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38, on a darkened Minneapolis freeway ramp before driving away.
“In sum, considering the circumstances proved … we conclude that only one reasonable conclusion can be drawn: Senser knew she hit either a person or a vehicle on the Riverside ramp that night,” Judge Margaret Chutich wrote. “No other rational inference is possible.”
The ruling could be the final bid for early freedom by Senser, 46, who is nearly a year into a 41-month prison sentence at the women’s correctional facility in Shakopee. She was convicted in May 2012 for striking Phanthavong as he was putting gas in his car on the Riverside Avenue exit ramp of Interstate 94 in Minneapolis.
Senser’s attorney, Eric Nelson, has not yet indicated whether he would ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear the case. He said early Monday that he would release a statement, but later rescinded. Joe Senser could not be reached for comment. In an interview with KARE 11 News, Senser said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, and said his family still felt remorse.
“Anousone was a really good guy and he was loved by a lot of people,” he told the station in an exclusive interview.
High court hurdles
Unlike the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court can decide whether it will hear arguments on a case.
The Appeals Court opinion in Senser’s case was unpublished, meaning it doesn’t create new law or address novel issues, creating another hurdle for Senser’s defense to bring her appeal before the state’s high court.
Senser’s lawyer has 30 days to petition the Supreme Court to hear the case, while the Hennepin County attorney’s office has 20 days to respond to the petition. The court has no deadline on when it decides whether to hear the appeal.
Should the Supreme Court say yes, Senser, who is scheduled for supervised release in October 2014, could be out of prison by the time a decision is rendered. However, the appellate process is likely over, said Scott Swanson, director of academic achievement at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
“Somebody took a lot of care to write this opinion, and it’s lengthy, but it doesn’t create new law — it applies to standard law,” he said. “That kind of spells doom for an appeal.”
The 32-page opinion came nearly two months after Nelson argued for Senser’s freedom before the Appeals Court. Nelson claimed the evidence didn’t support the verdicts, and that Senser was denied a fair trial in part because of multiple rulings by District Judge Daniel Mabley.
Mistakes deemed not crucial
The court agreed with Nelson that Mabley abused his discretion on two instances — once by allowing hearsay testimony by a State Patrol investigator, and another by failing to immediately disclose a jury’s post-verdict note that said “We believe [Senser] believed she hit a car or vehicle and not a person.” Senser never struck Phanthavong’s car.
However, the Appeals Court said neither ruling influenced the jury’s verdicts.