Amy Senser, center, was convicted in the Aug. 23, 2011, death of Anousone Phanthavong.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

June 29: E-mails reveal some details of Amy Senser case

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • June 29, 2012 - 7:57 AM

A series of e-mail exchanges between key legal players in Amy Senser's fatal hit-and-run case reveals last-minute maneuvering and a trove of exhibits never presented at trial, including a lead investigator's detailed report describing turmoil and allegiance among her friends.

Reports by state trooper John Farmakes, along with Anousone Phanthavong's autopsy report, are among several potential defense exhibits included in the e-mails between defense attorney Eric Nelson, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell and District Judge Daniel Mabley. Nelson filed the e-mails June 26, likely to preserve the conversations about issues he may bring up on appeal after Senser's July 9 sentencing.

Senser faces up to four years in prison for striking and killing Phanthavong, 38, as he was putting gas in his car at the Riverside Avenue exit along Interstate 94 on Aug. 23. Senser maintained she didn't know she struck a person the night she drove away from the scene and returned to her Edina home.

According to one of Farmakes' reports, Joe Senser was "hunched over" and "saddened" but "polite and soft-spoken," while Amy Senser appeared "emotionless and businesslike" at their first meeting with Minnesota State Patrol investigators Aug. 30. The couple turned over credit card information and cellphone numbers, but refused to give a statement. The detailed report begins with the events of Aug. 24, the morning Farmakes was assigned to the case, and runs through Amy Senser's Sept. 15 arrest, when Nelson arranged for Senser to turn herself in after being charged with criminal vehicular homicide. Six months later, a jury convicted her of two felony counts. She is scheduled for sentencing July 9.

Throughout his report, Farmakes expresses doubt about accounts offered in multiple interviews with the Sensers' family and friends. He said they "withheld information and showed signs of deception" or "appeared guarded and coached." Throughout the investigation, Joe and Amy Senser invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to speak with investigators, although both, along with their teenage daughters, later testified at trial. In one interview with witnesses who were in close contact with the Sensers after the accident, Farmakes reports an "apparent ... allegiance to the Senser family."

Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment.

E-mails detail strategy

The e-mails among Russell, Mabley and Nelson mostly discuss trial, scheduling and legal issues off-the-record.

Among those issues:

• While discussing jury instructions, the sides quibbled over the definition of "knowledge," but never discussed the phrase "or damage to another vehicle," which was key in the jury's conviction of Senser. The jury said later through a note to the judge that they thought Senser believed she hit a vehicle, not a person, although she never struck Phanthavong's vehicle.

• Mabley admitted he misread case law when he issued an order less than a week before trial saying that Senser's refusal to speak with police could be used against her. He immediately reversed the order, and apologized for "the flip-flop."

• Nelson asked by e-mail to delay the trial so he could introduce as a witness a doctor who treated Senser for head, face and neck pain less than two weeks before the accident -- likely to correlate Senser's claims that she left the Katy Perry concert early the night of the crash, when she failed to pick up her daughters. Mabley denied the continuance, partially because he deemed the testimony irrelevant.

The e-mails contain no discussion of plea negotiations, which took place after Senser's final pretrial hearing in April. Russell offered Senser a deal in which she would receive four years in prison in exchange for a plea to a single criminal vehicular homicide count. Or she could plead guilty to two counts and ask Mabley for probation, while Russell would ask for nearly five years in prison. Nelson countered with a guilty plea to one count in exchange for 10 years' probation. Both sides rejected the offers. Senser went to trial in April and was convicted May 3.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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