By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser was convicted Thursday of two felonies in a hit-and-run that killed a man, as jurors brushed aside her defense that she never saw him and thought she had hit a construction barrel or pothole.
Amy Senser was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident and failure to promptly report an accident, both criminal vehicular homicide charges, in the August death of Anousone Phanthavong. She was acquitted of a third felony charge of gross negligence. She was also convicted of misdemeanor careless driving.
Senser, 45, of Edina, showed little emotion as the verdicts were read, staring straight ahead. It was jurors who looked tense at the conclusion of the highly publicized trial, with one crying and dabbing at tears with a handkerchief. Later, after the judge dismissed the jury, Joe Senser stood behind his wife and rubbed her shoulders, trying to comfort her as she sniffled and wiped away tears.
Senser was to remain free until sentencing July 9. Each felony count was punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but sentencing guidelines suggested four years. The misdemeanor carried a potential sentence of up to 90 days in jail.
Her lead attorney, Eric Nelson, vowed an appeal. He said Senser was in shock.
"She has insisted that she didn't see him. She wants the world to believe that's the truth." Senser, he said, "is not the type of person who would knowingly leave a man on the road to die."
But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the convictions were warranted.
"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."
A niece of Phanthavong's, Souksavanh Phanthavong, thanked the jury. She called her uncle "a good person. There could've been a lot to him."
The case was one of Minnesota's most closely watched criminal trials in years, with overtones of a cover-up and a defendant married to a well-known figure in the state. Senser's husband, 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 string of restaurants in his name.
Phanthavong, 38, was a chef at a Thai restaurant near the site of the accident. His car had run out of gas and he had pulled to the side of the highway exit ramp. He was filling the car's tank when he was hit. Parts of a Mercedes were found at the scene, and authorities sought the public's help in finding the driver.
Nearly 24 hours later, Nelson called authorities to tell them they could pick up the vehicle involved at the Sensers'. Despite giving up the vehicle, the Sensers didn't talk to police, fueling speculation about who was driving and whether alcohol was involved.
It was more than a week later that Amy Senser admitted she was driving.
At trial, her stepdaughter Brittani testified that Amy Senser only came forward only after Brittani — angry that some people had speculated she was the driver — threatened to go to authorities.
Amy Senser testified that the night of the crash, she went to meet her daughters and their friends at a Katy Perry concert at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, and had part of a glass of wine at a nearby restaurant before going inside. After about 90 minutes, suffering from a headache, she left, intending to have her husband pick up the girls.
As she was driving home, she changed her mind and decided to return to St. Paul. Shortly after turning onto a freeway exit ramp in a construction area in Minneapolis, Senser said she felt a jolt at the front of her Mercedes-Benz SUV. She said she was looking to the left at the time, and thought she had hit an orange construction barrel or a pothole.
It wasn't until the next day, when her husband called her outside to look at the car and the couple saw news reports about Phanthavong's death, that the couple called an attorney. On the stand, she wept as she said she was still struggling to accept the fact that she had hit him.
Prosecutor Deborah Russell said in closing arguments that Senser had to have known, and questioned whether Joe Senser himself believed his wife. She reminded the jury of numerous texts Senser had deleted from her cellphone from the night of the crash and the next day.
Phanthavong's family members have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sensers seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
Senser played four years with the Vikings before a knee injury ended his career. He co-owns Joe Senser's Restaurant and Sports Theater, a Minneapolis-St. Paul-area restaurant chain.