Wife of former Viking faces prison for hit-and-run

STEVE KARNOWSKI
May 4, 2012
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Souksavanh Phanthavong, left, the niece of Anousone Phanthavong, addresses the media as other family members gather after a jury found Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Vikings NFL football star Joe Senser, guilty Thursday, May 3, 2012, in Minneapolis , on two felonies in a hit-and-run that killed Phanthavong last year. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Amy Senser led a comfortable life as the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser, mother of four daughters and resident of an upscale Minneapolis suburb. Now, she's facing prison after a jury didn't believe her story about a fatal hit-and-run accident.

"She's prepared for that possibility, but it certainly scares her," defense attorney Eric Nelson told reporters shortly after a jury convicted her Thursday on two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide.

Senser, 45, of Edina, is free pending sentencing on July 9 and plans to appeal. She was driving her husband's Mercedes SUV the night of Aug. 23 when she struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong as he was pouring gas into his stalled car on a dark freeway exit ramp.

She testified that she didn't realize until much later that she had hit anyone and is still struggling to accept that she killed him.

Senser also faces a civil lawsuit filed by the Roseville man's relatives that seeks damages of more than $50,000, a standard legal placeholder sum for claims that could go much higher.

Phanthavong, 38, an immigrant from Laos, was a chef at a Thai restaurant near the accident site.

Nelson said Senser, who left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, will have a chance to apologize to the family at sentencing.

"She has struggled with her inability to talk with the family at this time. And I know that what she wants more than anything else is to express her condolences to that family," Nelson said.

The Phanthavong family's attorney, Jim Ballentine, declined to comment on the status of the lawsuit Thursday but said his office is likely to issue an announcement about it next week.

It took the seven-man, five-woman jury around 19 hours of deliberations that started Tuesday to find Senser guilty on two of the three felony counts against her, plus a misdemeanor careless driving count. Jurors ultimately rejected her claim that she thought had hit a construction barrel or pothole.

One of the jurors said Thursday evening that the case was difficult because it came down to circumstantial evidence, but that jurors had decided not to deadlock.

"It was just a very challenging case for us to come to a consensus," Jameson "Jay" Larson told The Associated Press.

Larson said he and his fellow jurors spent most of Thursday trying to determine whether Senser knew she had hit a person before convicting her on the failing-to-stop charge. He said they went through her testimony and reviewed evidence, including phone records.

"It was very, very emotional," Larson said.

Nelson said one key issue in Senser's appeal will be the proper interpretation of what sort of notice a driver is supposed to give authorities after a serious accident. Nelson contends — and prosecutors disagree — that the Sensers complied when surrendering their damaged car the night after the accident.

Amy Senser didn't acknowledge that she was the driver until more than a week later, and her silence fueled speculation about who was driving and whether alcohol was involved.

While Minnesota judges typically follow sentencing guidelines, they can choose to impose lighter or harsher sentences if they find extenuating or aggravating conditions. In Minnesota, convicts with good behavior generally get released after serving about two-thirds of their sentences.

"She is not the type of person who would knowingly leave a man on the road to die," Nelson said.

But the county's top prosecutor, Mike Freeman, said justice has been done.

"I think if you're driving a car and you have an accident, the state Legislature and all the rest of us believe you have a duty to stop. That clearly is something that Mrs. Senser did not do," Freeman said. "And you have a duty to report that accident."

The case was one of Minnesota's most closely watched criminal trials in years, with overtones of celebrity, privilege and cover-up. Joe Senser was a tight end for the Vikings in the early 1980s and has remained visible as a game commentator and as owner of a group of sports bar-restaurants that has shrunk from four to two since the accident, for what have been termed financial reasons.

Ballatine said Phanthavong's relatives, who were a constant presence in the courtroom, have learned something important from this case:

"That the ground in front of the door to the Minnesota criminal justice system is level. And for obvious reasons that has been a concern for my clients from Day One. All that they've wanted in this criminal proceeding was for justice to be served. And they're thankful that that was accomplished in the jury verdict."