Juror: Senser's story didn't add up

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2012 - 5:15 AM

Inconsistencies, along with phone records and SUV damage, led to conviction, juror said.

For three days, Jay Larson and 11 others pored over cellphone records, photos of the Riverside Avenue exit ramp, and close-ups of Amy Senser's badly damaged Mercedes-Benz that lined the walls of their deliberation room.

And when they compared what they studied to Senser's testimony that she didn't realize she hit someone, things just didn't add up, Larson said Friday.

"It was almost like from the moment she got up from the day of the crash, she remembers where she went that morning, she remembers taking the kids to the mall, she remembers everything," said Larson, 37, a married father of three. But everything at the time of the crash and after became muddled. 

"How would she remember everything so well it's almost versed, but come to that time of the crash, there's just... we just couldn't buy it anymore," he said, struggling for words.

After six days of testimony and nearly 20 hours of deliberation, the weary jury on Thursday convicted Senser of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide for fleeing and not calling for help after hitting Anousone Phanthavong, 38, as he put gas in his stalled car on a freeway exit ramp. She'll be sentenced July 9.

As for why he believes Senser didn't stop, Larson demurred. "I have my own opinions on that, I really do, but I'd rather not say," he said. "I think we all had our own separate opinions on that."

In an interview at a south Minneapolis coffeeshop near his home, Larson said a few key pieces of evidence eventually swayed the jury into convicting Senser of the two felony counts, but it was a difficult and emotional task. Larson said the day the jury began deliberations, they decided they would not deadlock.

Larson praised the jury's forewoman, a mother of five and public speaker who teaches financial literacy, for urging the group to move forward until they reached a consensus.

"This was definitely a group decision," said Larson, a cemetery manager for Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapels. "I stand firmly behind my verdict. I think we all do."

Other jurors declined to discuss they case. They range in age from early 20s to mid-50s, with occupations from public health nurse to welder.

Open line at issue

Larson said phone records were also key, especially when compared to the testimony of Senser's husband, former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser. Senser claimed he struggled to get in touch with his wife because of poor cellular reception, and explained that an eight-minute call between the two was him simply keeping the line open while he was picking up their daughters and their friends from a concert at the Xcel Energy Center the night of Aug. 23.

"I don't think any of us bought that," Larson said.

He stopped short of saying they believed Senser was on the phone with her husband, asking what she should do after striking Phanthavong. "I don't think we as a group agreed on that," he said. "But there was strong evidence to say that just doesn't make sense."

Larson said it's difficult to say exactly what happened. Their verdict wasn't based on prosecutor Deborah Russell's theory that Senser was drunk -- there wasn't enough evidence to support it. All had their theories on why Senser left the scene, he said.

Testimony from witness Molly Kelley, who said she saw a Mercedes sport-utility vehicle with a headlight out driving erratically past the scene 40 minutes after the crash, also was critical, Larson said. He said they decided to acquit Senser on the third felony criminal vehicular homicide count, alleging gross negligence, in favor of convicting her for misdemeanor careless driving.

The evidence was circumstantial. But between the return to the scene, the phone calls, the fact that Senser claimed to have been lost in the area for 40 minutes, as well as the question of why she left in the first place, were all too much for the jury to acquit, he said.

Jurors gave a lot of credit to a key defense witness who testified that Senser could have easily missed seeing Phanthavong and his vehicle because of "visual clutter" in the area, but Larson said the facts overcame it.

"She kept talking about hitting a barrel, but there were no barrels there," he said. He also pointed out that Senser could not have taken a right off the ramp. Looking closely at the photographs, he said, jurors determined Riverside Avenue was closed in both directions.

Brittani Senser's testimony about how she compelled her stepmother to turn herself in, and that of the couple's two younger daughters, didn't bear heavily on the deliberations, Larson said. Nor did prosecution questions hinting at Amy Senser's possible infidelities.

"We really did focus on Amy's testimony," he said.

Damage was crucial

Larson also said that damage to Senser's SUV also was a key piece of evidence. "This is where the word 'reasonable' came in," he said. "Would a reasonable person who had hit a construction cone or a barrel pull off to at least check to see if there was damage?"

Senser had to have known of the extent of the damage, he said. Part of the vehicle was rubbing against the tire, a sound he concluded she must have heard if she was driving with the windows down, as testimony indicated.

"If you want to ask us at the 12th hour or the 20th hour, when we started putting that-plus-that-plus-that, she knew," he said. "She knew she had hit something."

Larson said delivering the verdicts was difficult. He was overwhelmed with a "this is it" feeling and chose not to look Senser in the eye. Others did, he said, and told him she made eye contact with each of them as the verdict was read. "I guess she was looking at all of us, eyeball to eyeball," he said. "I'm glad I didn't look after that."

They didn't know what kind of sentence she would receive, and were ordered not to consider it, he said. "I think as a human being, as a parent, I have to think about it," he said of the concept of sending Senser to prison. "But that's after the fact. That's after the verdict's in."

Amy Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, said after the verdict that his client likely will apologize at her sentencing. She had not done so yet because of the ongoing criminal and civil cases, both of which are now settled, although Nelson plans to appeal the conviction. Larson said the jurors were told afterward that there was supposed to be an opportunity for Senser to apologize during her testimony, but due to some sort of mistake, she didn't.

It didn't go unnoticed by the jury.

As to whether it would have made a difference, Larson said: "It would have been noted."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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