Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Amy Senser trial

The trial of Amy Senser is scheduled to begin Monday, and so both the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune have previews in today's paper. I've been following the case since the accident last August, and I have a couple of thoughts, but I'd also like to discuss some interesting things in the newspaper coverage.

The summary is this: One night last August, Amy Senser - wife of former Viking tight end Joe Senser - was driving her SUV on I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her daughter and some friends were at the Katy Perry concert in St. Paul, and Amy was supposed to pick them up. At one point she took the Riverside exit off of I-94, where she struck and killed a local Laotian chef named Anousone Phanthavong. He had run out of gas, obtained a couple gallons at a local station and was gassing up his car at the time he was killed.

Senser kept driving, made some phone calls - reportedly saying she was lost - and returned home without ever getting to St. Paul. The next day - as reports of the hit-and-run death circulated in the media - she and her husband contacted an attorney, who alerted the State Patrol that the vehicle they were searching for was in the Senser garage. The car was impounded, and later Amy was charged with vehicular homicide.

I have thought from the beginning that it would be very hard to convict her in the case, because the law requires that for a vehicular homicide charge to stick, the accused must KNOW that they hit someone and still failed to stop. I know the Riverside exit pretty well, and there were some extenuating circumstances that night. It was after 11 p.m., and there was road construction around the exit.  Because of that construction, power had been cut off to the overhead street lights around the ramp.

Put yourself in the place of someone going up an exit they were not familiar with, late at night, with no street lights, through a construction zone with headlights being reflected off of guard rails and construction equipment. You're driving along - in a large 5,000-pound SUV - and you hear a thump. Did you hit a pothole? Did you hit a construction barrel? Was there some debris on the exit ramp? Did you run over an animal? If you believed any of those things, would your first instinct be to pull over in an unfamiliar inner-city neighborhood and check for damage? Particularly if you were a woman, traveling alone, a little before midnight? Probably not.

According to the narrative, Senser gave up on finding the concert, made sure the girls had another ride, went home, parked in her garage and went to sleep. The next day she and her husband heard the news reports, looked at their car, and started making the phone calls that have led us to this point.

Please understand that I'm NOT saying it all happened this way. All I'm saying is that it seems to me to be a pretty plausible explanation, and Senser's attorney doesn't even have the burden of proving it happened this way; It's the state's job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she knew she had hit a person and failed to stop. It seems to me that if the defense team lays out a scenario similar to what I just described, it's pretty hard to prove otherwise, and reasonable doubt seems easily reachable.

The prosecution has been throwing a lot of things out in the media, alleging that Senser had been drinking, or was impaired by prescription drugs, but given the length of time between the accident and her arrest, those allegations seem impossible to prove. One likely scenario would seem to be that the prosecution realizes the weakness of its case, the Sensers want to avoid a trial and Amy pleads guilty to something like misdemeanor careless driving or some such. My gut feeling - and my guesses are just that, guesses, uninfluenced by any kind of legal education - is that if they try to convict her on a more serious charge, they will fail.

On to a different, but related, topic:

What I found interesting about the stories in today's Strib and PP was the way the reporters painted such totally different pictures of Amy Senser and the victim. David Hanners of the Pioneer Press described Senser's background this way:

"She spent seven years working with Park Spanish Immersion School in St. Louis Park and later started her own tutoring business. 

She also got involved with Peruvian Partners, a faith-based group serving the poor in Peru, "bringing them spiritual, physical and economic hope," according to the group's website.

"Amy traveled to Peru as a volunteer with Peruvian Partners and was immediately touched by the great need," said Gina Stavros, who founded the organization with her husband, David. She said Senser has returned to the country "because it wasn't just about meeting physical need, but also because she had built relationships." 

Those paragraphs seem to tell the story of a caring, dedicated woman who gave of herself to help others. Over at the Strib, Abby Simons spends a single paragraph on Senser's background, writing that:

"(Senser's attorney) Nelson described Senser as a stay-at-home mother who worked as an assistant funeral planner before leaving that job to pursue a professional license to handle insurance and funeral planning."

Quite a different picture, eh? The impression is that Hanners actually got out and did some, you know, reporting, while Simons made a perfunctory call to the defense attorney and let it go at that.

The Pioneer Press story also made mention of  Phanthavong's somewhat checkered past, including his felony theft conviction, other scrapes with the law and his treatment for drug addiction. The prosecutors won a pre-trial motion to exclude any evidence regarding cocaine in Phanthavong's system at the time of the accident. The Strib couldn't find room to mention those things, describing the victim only as someone who "..arrived in the mid '80s as a teenager, and for years worked nearly every day at True Thai in Minneapolis' Seward Neighborhood. He was fiercely protective and loyal toward his family...a friend and father figure to his younger niece." The relevance, of course, is that someone with a history of drug use and drugs in his system may have inadvertently made some inexplicable move to put himself in harm's way.

The Star-Tribune always sees every issue - from state budgets to global warming to the Twins roster - through its own peculiar prism of race and class. Since last August, it's been pretty easy to watch the Strib's narrative of "Rich, privileged white woman callously mows down member of minority community" unfold, and Simons did a good job of toeing the company line, while the P-P's Hanners did a far better job of presenting a balanced account of the facts as we know them. The trial, of course, should tell us more about what really happened.


  1. Tim - my girls go to school with the Senser girls and we know this family - not well - but I was in a mother daughter book club with Amy in elementary school and they also went to our church for awhile. The whole story is just tragic.

  2. Thanks, Tim, for filling us in on so many details we don't hear or read. While I realize it's the media's duty and job to report the news, I feel horribly frustrated that they (generally speaking) are so judgmental and often convicting, vilifying, and condemning the accused before a jury can be chosen. And we have riots, and the accused has to wear a bullet-proof vest when released on bail and hide. In this particular case, I agree with you, there's too much doubt. Thanks again for your insight and wisdom. Wish I'd gotten to know you better in high school! Kim N.

  3. What does either of their past have to do with 11pm the night of the accident? This all boils down to her actions, not his. Defense tried to argue, but lost that maybe he was the cause because of drugs. Just be cause you are on drugs doesn't always mean you are always out of control or reach as far to say 'maybe, he jumped out in front of the car' Take it at face value, he was filling his tank and she hit him. Those are the undisputed facts that all parties agree. Now did she know she hit someone. Let her actions following that moment determine that answer. It seems that she deleted texts of that day. It seems that the kids knew something was up. If there are a lot of unusual phone calls and texts between 11pm and 1am. I'd want to know why so many people are involved with getting her "un-lossed" Joe seemed to quickly come to the conclusion the next day. Daughter knew of something there was more going on than my mom hit a cone that night.

  4. I agree that the reporters have a responsibility to present more than just a cursory look at the accused and the victim. It's often not so much about what is included in these brief bios but what is left out. Simon's description of Senser may be accurate but it hardly paints a complete picture. However, I disagree with your supposition of what happened that night. It seems highly irresponsible for a mother to leave her children without a ride home from downtown Minneapolis. Isn't it also possible that she left the car in the driveway because she was seriously impaired? Why the hesitation to report who was driving? If she truly didn't think she hit someone, it seems the most likely explanation would be some level of impairment.

  5. This gets more bizzare with each passing day. The daughter testified that she knows her Mom was at the concert because Amy called her during a Perry song that they both consider thier song. So if Amy was at the concert that means sometime after she and her daughter spoke (they never met up at the show) Amy somehow ended up lost going from the parking area back to the arena to pick up the kids, which doesn't make sense. She must of left the concert sometime after the phone call to her daughter and that's what put her on that ramp. Where she went or what she was doing hasn't come out. The other question I have is if you hit something with your car and wern't sure what it was wouldn't you pull over ASAP to check the damage ?..I know I would and I have done it in the past. That had to be a loud viberating thump when she hit him, wouldn't anyone be a little curious as to what you hit if you wern't sure.
    Doesn't add up on so many fronts and makes it look like she's hiding the fact she was impaired. Sad all the way around...

  6. The defense made some critical errors...they portrayed Amy has the victim...poor surburban women alone at night , with a headache, supposedly lost in the big city...there can't be two victims...her story seemed calculated and improbable...ultimately the jury thought the same