Prosecution presses to keep Senser trial in Hennepin County

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 11:44 PM

Her attorney has claimed news coverage and online comments make a fair trial here impossible. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and his office say that isn't so.

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman

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Arguing that there's little evidence press coverage of the Amy Senser case has prejudiced potential jurors, prosecutors said Tuesday that the court should deny a defense request to move her upcoming criminal vehicular homicide trial out of the Twin Cities.

"This case should be tried in Hennepin County," the motion begins, "where Defendant admittedly hit and killed the victim."

The question of prejudice was first raised by Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, who earlier this month requested the move, saying media coverage and ensuing online public comments had created a "mob mentality" that made it impossible for Senser to get a fair trial.

With the trial just over a month away, the motion filed Tuesday is the latest back-and-forth between the defense and prosecution as attorneys jockey for position on trial issues, press coverage and the law. The to and fro has included allegations that the case is being tried in public and that the prosecution has sensationalized the case by talking about blood on the hood of Senser's sport-utility vehicle.

The arguments made in Tuesday's filing weighed the relative influence of anonymous remarks that readers leave on news websites, where inflammatory comments can be commonplace.

For Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Assistant County Attorney Deborah L. Russell, who filed Tuesday's motion, the comments could be coming from anywhere, could be read by just a few people or even no one, and may not be reflective of the community's overall opinion.

For Nelson, some of the comments are so sinister that he has concerns for Senser's safety. Some online commenters published Senser's home address. One anonymous observer wrote: "Rope. Tree. No admission fee."

Nelson has also objected to remarks Freeman has made to the media about the facts of the case, including a statement that "his blood was all over her car," referring to the victim. Nelson also objected to Freeman's remark that it's irrefutable that Senser knew she hit a person.

"That's a fact that is in dispute in the case," Nelson said Tuesday. "I have refused to discuss the facts of the case. I have discussed the law. I've discussed perceptions. But not the facts," he said.

In a motion earlier this month, he had requested that Senser's criminal vehicular homicide trial, set for April 23, be moved to Kandiyohi County, about 90 miles west of Minneapolis. If the judge moves the trial, it would likely be delayed for logistical reasons.

Senser has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Her defense has argued that there isn't enough evidence to prove she knew she struck a person when she hit Anousone Phanthavong with her Mercedes-Benz SUV Aug. 23 on an exit ramp of Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. Phanthavong, 38, died at the scene.

Newest motion

Russell argued in the latest filing that Freeman's office has done little to generate media coverage of the case and that it's difficult to know the size, location or opinions of the audience following the story.

The request to move the trial is "extraordinary and unfounded," the motion continued, citing precedents from Minnesota case law that said Senser and her attorneys must show that a fair trial could not be held in Hennepin County. "Widespread publicity alone does not mandate a change of venue," the motion quotes from a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling. It's only when that publicity rises to the point that a fair trial seems unlikely, or that it "affects the minds of specific jurors" that it becomes grounds for moving the trial.

The motion also blames some of the press coverage on the defense attorney's willingness to talk to the media. By comparison, it notes, Freeman has spoken to the media twice about the Senser case, once on Sept. 15 when she was charged and again on Jan. 23 when an amended complaint was filed.

Regarding some of the online comments made during the Senser coverage, Freeman's office said some commenters left their names and made it possible to trace their location. People from Hugo, Minn., and Bradenton, Fla., have made comments online, the motion said, both locations that would not be home to any prospective jurors in a Hennepin County trial.

Russell said the average reader would not see the comments, hypothesizing that most readers ignore them. She added that Nelson has made many more statements to the media than Freeman has, including claims that "new evidence" would exonerate his client.

That amounts to trying the case in the court of public opinion, Russell argued. The process of selecting a jury will give the defense attorney opportunity to ask jurors if they have read about the case or formed any biases, she added.

"At this point the Court would be hard pressed to find any county where nobody has heard about this case," she wrote.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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