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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Amy Senser Hit and Run Homicide Case

     Amy Senser and her husband Joe lived in Edina, Minnesota, an upscale Minneapolis suburb. Joe Senser, a NFL tight end with the Minnesota Vikings in the early 1980s, co-owned four Minneapolis-St. Paul area sports bars. A knee injury had ended his 4-year career with the Vikings. The businessman and sports commentator was a well-liked local celebrity. His attractive, 45-year-old wife Amy was also well-inown and popular. But on the night of August 23, 2011, Amy and Joe Senser's successful lives would take a sudden and tragic turn.

     On the night that changed everything for the Senser family, Amy and her daughters were attending a Katy Perry concert at the Xcell Energy Center in St. Paul. Ninety minutes into the show, Amy developed a headache and decided to drive home. She called Joe who agreed to pick up the girls after the concert.

     According to Amy's version of what happened, while driving Joe's Mercedes-Benz SUV on I-94's Riverside exit off-ramp, a poorly lit section of the highway under construction, she felt a jolt and thought she'd hit a pothole or had bumped a construction barrel. In fact, the right front of her vehicle had hit and killed a man from Laos named Anousone Phantauong. The 38-year-old chef at a Thai restaurant was pouring gasoline into his car that had rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the exit ramp.

     After the collision, Amy got lost, and called her husband. At one point, in her confusion, she came full circle and got off the interstate using the same Riverside exit. This time the area was lit up with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. She did not associate this activity with the earlier jolt she had felt from either a pothole, or a construction barrel.

     The next morning, according to Amy Senser's account, Joe called her outside and asked how the Mercedes' right headlight and fog light had gotten knocked out. By then, they both had seen TV reports of Phantauong's death, and the search for the hit and run driver. Realizing what had happened the previous night, the Sensers called their lawyer, and later that day, surrendered the damaged Mercedes to the police.

     In speaking to the police, Amy admitted that just before the Katy Perry concert, she had gone to a nearby restaurant where she had consumed less than a full glass of wine. She insisted, however, that she had not been intoxicated when her car hit and killed Mr. Phantauong. Investigators believed she had been drunk, and because of that, had not stopped after plowing into the victim. Detectives were convinced she wanted to sober up before reporting the fatal accident.

     In November 2011, the Hennepin County prosecutor, Deborah Russell, charged Amy Senser with three vehicular related felonies: driving in a grossly negligent manner; leaving the scene of an accident; and failure to promptly report an accident. If convicted of all three charges, the defendant could face up to 30 years in prison. Because she hadn't confessed, and no witness to the accident had come forward, the case against Amy Senser was entirely circumstantial. To find her guilty, the jury would have to infer her state of mind that night. If they believed her testimony, they would have to acquit her.

     To find the defendant guilty of reckless driving, the jury would also have to infer she had been intoxicated at the time of the accident. The fact she had clipped Mr. Phantauong, a man who had placed himself in harm's way by standing just off a poorly lit exit ramp, was not, by itself, enough to establish gross negligence on her part. If the jurors did not find that she was drunk, they would probably not find that the accident was a result of reckless driving.

     The highly anticipated, media intense Amy Senser trial commenced on April 23, 2012. In an effort to prove that the defendant had been driving drunk that night, prosecutor Russell put a motorist on the stand. Shortly after the accident, the witness saw, on I-94, a Mercedes SUV being driven in an erratic manner. The witness passed this vehicle when it slowed to 40 MPH, and when she looked into her rearview mirror, noticed that the car's right front lights were out.

     Defense attorney Eric Nelson put on only one witness, Amy Senser. The defendant denied she had been intoxicated when her car hit what she thought was a pothole or a construction barrel. As for her erratic driving on I-94, she had dropped her cellphone between the seat and the center console, and was trying to fish it out.

     On May 2, 2012, the jury of 7 men and 5 women, after a grueling deliberation period of 19 hours, found Amy Senser guilty of two of the three felonies. Jurors acquitted the defendant of the gross negligent charge. Amy, who faced up to 20 years on prison, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.

     At a post-trial press conference, attorney Eric Nelson said he would appeal his client's conviction on the grounds she had met the requirements of the state accident notification law. One of the jurors who spoke to reporters said, "It was just a very challenging case for us to come to a consensus."

     On July 10, 2012, the judge sentenced Amy Senser to 41 months in prison.

     Corrections authorities, on April 24, 2014, released Amy Senser from the Shakopee Women's Prison after she had served all but six months of her prison stretch. On October 20, 2014, following the completion of a six-month work release program, Senser, having served her hit-and-run sentence, was free.

   
   

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