Lawyers get hit-and-runs off fast track

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2011 - 7:48 AM

Amy Senser case's pace is in line with others with attorneys involved early.

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Vilayphone and Kono Phanthavong talked about their brother Anousone’s hit-and-run death and their civil lawsuit against Joe and Amy Senser.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Amy Senser isn't the first Minnesotan not to face immediate charges despite admitting to authorities through a lawyer that her vehicle was involved in a fatal hit-and-run.

Instead, her case is following a pattern seen in other investigations where the involvement and advice of defense lawyers from the beginning of the case mean a sometimes-substantial delay before criminal charges are filed.

While Senser's case is a high-profile one, others have followed a similar path.

Bloomington resident Mark W. Lindgren had his lawyer contact the authorities days after the crash that killed an 85-year-old woman on her walk home from visiting her husband in the nursing home. Like Senser, Lindgren refused to talk with investigators about the accident. And like Senser, Lindgren faced no immediate criminal charges.

Charges were filed against Lindgren three weeks later. He is scheduled to stand trial next month.

Eric James Hunter got an attorney and also declined to talk with authorities after Apple Valley police found his vehicle less than a week after Joan LeVasseur, 26, was struck at an intersection on March 6, 2009. She died days later.

It took six months before Hunter was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving a death and driving with a suspended license. His trial ended with a hung jury, but he was recharged last April.

Gregory Larsin encountered far different treatment. He turned himself in July 29, two days after an accident in which a 78-year-old man was run down in St. Paul. Within two days, Larsin faced charges of criminal vehicular homicide. He had no lawyer up front.

The quick involvement of a defense lawyer advising clients to refuse to speak with investigators can substantially slow the pace of a probe.

"The difference is the police are going to understand now that they just cannot talk to this person without the lawyer being present," said Joseph L. Daly, a professor at Hamline University School of Law. "The police are being careful because the police are supposed to be careful and because they know she has a very good lawyer who is going to question every move they make."

Six-month delay?

The Minnesota State Patrol has consistently denied that Senser is getting any special treatment in the investigation of the accident on the night of Aug. 23 that killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38, as he put gas in his car after it stalled on a Minneapolis freeway ramp.

So far, Senser, 45, and her husband, former Vikings star Joe Senser, 55, have refused to talk to authorities, though her lawyer has admitted that she was driving the Mercedes SUV on the night it struck and killed Phanthavong.

The Senser family's attorney, Eric Nelson, directed State Patrol investigators to the vehicle, parked in the garage of their Edina home with blood still on the hood, on the night after the incident. Nelson waited more than a week to publicly identify Amy Senser as the driver, and he advised the couple to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

That's left the State Patrol to seek and sift through evidence on its own. It's the same track undertaken by Jim Schwebel, an attorney retained by the Phanthavong family, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Sensers last week, he said, in hopes of finding answers.

Schwebel said he's hired an accident reconstructionist, is working to obtain images from surveillance cameras in the area along the Interstate 94 exit to Riverside Avenue and subpoenaed cellphone records to track calls and GPS data to determine where members of the Senser family were and what they were doing that night.

Schwebel said they've received several tips about Amy Senser's whereabouts that night, some suggesting her vehicle was spotted in a line of cars coming from the Katy Perry concert at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

The State Patrol has remained mostly mum about its investigation. Nelson has refused to describe the circumstances of the crash but hinted last week that Amy Senser didn't know she hit someone.

Under state law, a suspect cannot be held in jail more than 36 hours without being charged. So it makes little sense for an arrest to be made unless investigators are ready with charges.

Quicker charges

Other recent high-profile metro hit-and-run cases reflect quicker paths to arrests and charges, often bolstered by additional evidence.

Timothy Bakdash is charged with first-degree murder, accused of running down a group of U students in Dinkytown and killing one in April. Bakdash was arrested seven days after the crash and charged two days after that.

Neither Bakdash nor Larsin, the driver charged in the St. Paul hit-and-run, retained an attorney before they wound up in police custody, according to court records. Both men remain in jail.

Daly said he understands why the Sensers' actions haven't been well received, particularly by Phanthavong's grieving family, which has expressed frustration with the speed of the investigation and the Sensers' silence.

While it may be unpopular, he said, anyone suspected of a crime has the right to an attorney and the right to not engage in self-incrimination. The difference in treatment among suspects, Daly said, often comes down to the fact that some lack the knowledge or the money to hire a defense lawyer right away.

"You've often got to know somebody, and maybe a lot of poor people don't run in circles with lawyers and doctors; they don't have the money to immediately access the legal defense system if they don't have the sophistication," he said. "It's the reality of our system."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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