MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) — The wife of a former Minnesota Viking tearfully told jurors Monday at her fatal hit-and-run trial that she thought she hit a construction barrel or a pothole, not a person, the night of the accident.
Amy Senser, the wife of former Vikings tight end Joe Senser, testified she felt an impact after she exited a freeway in her Mercedes SUV on Aug. 23 in Minneapolis.
“I remember being jolted by the front,” Senser testified. “Not exactly sure what had happened. I assumed I had hit something.”
Senser is charged with three felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Anousone Phanthavong. Each count carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison, but Minnesota law requires the prosecution to convince the jury that she knew she had hit a person before she drove off.
Phanthavong, a 38-year-old restaurant cook, had run out of gas and pulled his car to the side of the exit ramp. He was filling the car’s tank with gas when he was hit at about 11 p.m.
Senser wept as she testified that she was still certain when she read a news report on his death the next morning that she wasn’t the driver who hit him. Her voice choked up as she said she’s still struggling to accept the fact that she did.
“I don’t know how you wouldn’t know you had hit somebody,” she said.
Although Senser’s attorney had given her account of the incident during months of legal sparring leading up to trial, Monday marked the first time Senser herself has spoken publicly about the case, which grabbed headlines in part because of her husband’s celebrity. Joe Senser played four years with the Vikings before a knee injury ended his career.
Amy Senser’s attorney, Eric Nelson, opened his questioning by asking Senser how she felt.
“Terrified,” she said. “But I finally get to speak.”
Senser choked up several times during her testimony and dabbed at her eyes and nose with a tissue.
She said she left her job at a chiropractic clinic at about 7 p.m. to meet her daughter and her daughter’s friends at a Katy Perry concert at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. She said she had part of a glass of a wine at a nearby restaurant’s outdoor patio before going into the arena but didn’t finish the wine because she had to hurry to the concert.
Senser said she spent about 90 minutes at the concert but left because of a headache, figuring she’d get home in time to send Joe Senser to pick up the girls.
But she soon changed her mind and decided to return to St. Paul. It was as she drove up an exit ramp in Minneapolis that she struck something on the right side. Senser said she was looking to the left at the time — to try to figure out how to get back onto the freeway in the opposite direction — and didn’t see what she hit.
Two defense experts who testified Monday said Senser would have had a difficult time seeing Phanthavong before or after she hit him because the ramp was unlit and cluttered with construction signs and barrels. Accident reconstructionist Daniel Lofgren, also disputed the State Patrol’s conclusions that the victim had to have flown up over the SUV’s hood. He said there was no damage to the hood or windshield, making it more likely the SUV delivered a glancing blow. He also said the damage was not visible from the driver’s seat.
After exiting the freeway, Senser described then getting lost and eventually calling Joe Senser to pick up the girls. She said she went to the family’s Edina home, took her things inside, let their dogs out and laid down on a couch on the front porch to wait for Joe and their daughter to return home.
Prosecutor Deborah Russell asked Senser why she didn’t notice one of her headlights was out when she pulled up to her garage. Senser said she simply didn’t notice.
Senser said it wasn’t until the next morning, when Joe Senser called her outside to look at her car, that she realized how damaged it was. He later showed her an Internet news report on Phanthavong’s death.
Russell also pressed Senser on deleting numerous text messages between herself, her daughter, her husband and other people the night of the crash. Senser said she exchanges a lot of texts — 1,400 per month based on a phone bill introduced in court — and frequently deletes them. She said she wasn’t trying to conceal evidence.
Russell pointed out inconsistencies between Senser’s testimony and what was stated previously about the accident in an affidavit. In the affidavit, it said that Senser attempted to return to the concert because she was feeling better. When she spoke Monday, her reason for attempting to return was that she thought it was silly to have left.
The Sensers contacted an attorney the day after the accident. He told authorities the Sensers owned the vehicle they were seeking, and they seized it. But it was more than a week before Amy Senser acknowledged to investigators that she was the driver. She testified she did so against the advice of her attorneys because suspicion was beginning to fall on her adult stepdaughter, who demanded that she come forward.
Senser said she gave the jeans she was wearing the night of the accident to Goodwill. Those jeans, she said, held her ticket to the concert. She told the court she didn’t want to keep anything that reminded her of the accident.
Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley told the jury that closing arguments were expected Tuesday, and that they should bring clothes and other personal items for overnight because they’ll be sequestered until they return a verdict.
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