MINNEAPOLIS -- A jury began deliberations Tuesday on the crucial questions of whether the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser knew she had struck and killed a stalled motorist on a freeway exit ramp -- and when she knew it.
Prosecutor Deborah Russell told the jurors in closing arguments that the evidence proves Amy Senser had to have known she hit Anousone Phanthavong, was probably drunk, concealed evidence and failed to notify authorities about the fatal accident. She urged them not to take Senser at her word but to balance her testimony against all the other evidence presented during the seven-day trial.
"The evidence in this case demonstrates she knew she hit Mr. Phanthavong at the time she hit him," Russell said.
But defense attorney Eric Nelson accused prosecutors of rushing to judgment because Senser and her husband, the former Vikings tight end turned restaurateur, are well known in the community.
"Amy Senser is a public figure. Joe Senser is a public figure. We want to make an example (of them)," Nelson said.
After deliberating more than four hours Tuesday, the jury recessed for the night without a verdict just before 7 p.m. CDT. Deliberations were scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Amy Senser, 45, of Edina, is charged with three felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide plus a misdemeanor count of careless driving stemming from the Aug. 23 incident. To get a conviction on the first felony count, the prosecution had to prove that she knew she hit a person. On the second count, the prosecution needed to prove that not only did she know she struck someone but that she failed to report it as soon as reasonably possible. The third requires the jury to conclude she acted with gross negligence, not just ordinary negligence.
If she's convicted on one or all of the felony counts, the state's sentencing guidelines recommend a prison sentence of four years. The misdemeanor count carries a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Senser testified Monday that she thought she had hit an orange construction barrel or a pothole when she heard a bump as she drove up an exit ramp off Interstate 94 in Minneapolis just after 11 p.m. last Aug. 23. She said she was not looking forward and never saw Phanthavong, a 38-year-old restaurant cook who had run out of gas and was filling it on the side of the road. She testified she was lost not but not under the influence of alcohol.
She said she did not see that front right corner of her husband's Mercedes SUV was damaged until the next morning. Although she said she was certain she wasn't involved in the fatal accident even after she learned of it through a news report, her husband contacted an attorney who turned the car over to the State Patrol the night of Aug. 24. She did not acknowledge she was the driver until Sept. 2.
"Ms. Senser did not know what she hit on August 23rd. She did not know what she hit on August 24th. And she's struggling with accepting it to this day," Nelson said.
The closing arguments also revisited "Amyworld," a term Joe Senser used in his testimony last week when he said his wife was prone to taking off and disappearing for hours at a time without telling anyone. He attributed it to her fierce independence, not mental instability.
Russell tried to turn that against the Sensers, suggesting jurors should not believe the testimony from her, her family or her friends.
"Amyworld is a special place. It is a place where you have extremely loyal family and friends," Russell said.
But Nelson said even the state's strongest evidence, including cellphone logs, was consistent with Senser's account of what happened that night: She planned to meet up with a daughter and her teenage friends at a Katy Perry concert in St. Paul, but wasn't feeling well and decided to head home and let her husband pick up the kids.
Senser said she changed her mind as she was driving home and was trying to turn around when she hit Phanthavong. Senser said she then got lost, gave up on going back to the arena, and returned home.
"There is a lot of talk about Amyworld and what it means. But Amyworld is not synonymous with irresponsibility," Nelson said. She is a mother who cares deeply about her family, he said.
But Russell told the jury Senser was probably passed out and drunk on the couch on her front porch when her husband and daughter returned home, not sleeping off her headache as she claimed. Russell said it had to be significant that Senser deleted all of the many texts on her cellphone from the night of Aug. 23 and the next day.
And she said Senser had ample opportunity to report the accident and cooperate with authorities the day after the accident but chose not to, even as her husband's suspicions grew and she contacted a lawyer.
"He didn't believe her, and neither should you. This isn't Amyworld. This is the real world," Russell said.
Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley gave the case to the seven-man, five-woman jury shortly after midday. Jurors were to be sequestered if they didn't reach a verdict by day's end.