An appeal Friday of Amy Senser's criminal vehicular homicide conviction attacked a dozen alleged missteps by the court during her trial, including disallowing the victim's toxicology report and a note that the jury wanted read to Senser when the verdict was announced.
The filing to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in St. Paul also cites lack of evidence proving Senser knew the accident killed Anousone Phanthavong, the denial of a change of venue due to pretrial publicity, and failure to sequester the jury during the trial.
Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, also asked that she be released from prison pending the appeal.
Nelson declined to comment Friday. Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney's office, said his office hadn't seen the filing and couldn't comment. However, he added, it didn't come as a surprise: "Mr. Nelson has said since she was found guilty that he would appeal."
The appeal came a month after Senser, 46, was found guilty in Phanthavong's hit-and-run death on a darkened I-94 off-ramp at Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis last August. She was sentenced to 3 1/2 years at the Minnesota women's prison in Shakopee, the least amount of time she could receive under state guidelines. She will serve two-thirds of her sentence, and will be eligible for parole in October 2014.
At sentencing, District Judge Daniel Mabley rejected the defense request for probation and ordered prison time for her conviction on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide, saying, in part, he doubted her story that she didn't know she struck Phanthavong. He theorized she was "panicked and confused," and believed if she continued driving on, "maybe she could avoid responsibility."
Jury note is key issue
A key issue raised by the defense in a post-conviction motion was a note from jurors that indicated they believed Senser's claims that she didn't know she struck Phanthavong. The jury found her guilty anyway because they believed she thought she had struck a vehicle -- a point never addressed during her seven-day trial, according to Nelson.
The handwritten note, received by Mabley just before the verdicts were presented, said: "Can this be read in the courtroom in front of Ms. Senser? We believe, she believed she hit a car or vehicle and not a person."
Mabley declined the jury's request and didn't share the note with attorneys for several days. In the filing, Nelson referred to his reasons for an appeal as "abuses of discretion" during pretrial and trial proceedings.
Some appeared to be more significant points, such as disallowing Phanthavong's toxicology report. Jurors were not allowed to hear the evidence that Phanthavong had a high level of cocaine in his system when he was killed.
Free during appeal?
Nelson also argued that Senser should be released from prison pending the appeal. He said she meets the legal standards necessary to satisfy release: The appeal isn't frivolous, Senser will appear in court at the conclusion of the appeal, and she isn't likely to commit a serious crime or intimidate witnesses.
"Arguably, the evidence against Ms. Senser is insufficient to sustain her convictions and the circumstances surrounding the event that led to criminal charges against her do not indicate vehicular homicide, but instead depict an unfortunate accident with no criminal culpability on the part of Ms. Senser," Nelson said.
Phanthavong, 38, a popular chef at True Thai restaurant in Minneapolis, was putting gas in his stalled car when he was struck and killed. His family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the Sensers before the trial began.
In her affidavit for the appeal filing, Senser said she was a mother of four and worked part time at Kenwood Chiropractic. If released pending appeal, she said she would abide by any additional court orders. Senser is married to former Minnesota Vikings star and restaurateur Joe Senser.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465