Friday, April 20, 2012

Amy Senser Trial Update

We'll take a break this week from the series on your rights, finishing that up next week with your rights when police stop you while on foot in public.  In the mean time, I want to take a quick peak at the Amy Senser trial in Hennepin County in light of the flurry of activity with that case in the past couple days.

I had an article almost completed yesterday on the surprising ruling by the judge in the case that would have allowed the prosecution to use Senser's unwillingness to speak with investigators against her in trial.  It was a very odd ruling and was against most precedent on the subject.  The 5th Amendment of the Constitution protects us from self-incrimination.  It gives us the right to decline to speak with law enforcement officials in order to protect our interests.  However, as I was about to start writing my final paragraph, I took a quick constitutional over to the Star Tribune's website, only to see that the judge had reversed his ruling and had allowed the motion by the defense to preclude the prosecution from using Senser's silence against her.  As an advocate of justice, I was pleased.  As a writer who had spent the better portion of my morning researching the precedent behind the ruling and the consequences of such a decision, I was a little bitter that my hard work was for naught.  Either way, Thursday was an important day in the Amy Senser trial.  Here are a few of the big decisions made by the judge regarding motions made by both the defense and the prosecution.  I won't go through all 16 of them, just three that I found particularly important.

1.  The defense's motion to disallow the prosecution from using Amy Senser's silence as incriminating evidence was ultimately upheld.  What this means is that the old adage of "what you say can and will be used against you in a court of law" doesn't hold up to what you don't say.  This isn't anything new.  Any attorney worth his or her salt would have instructed Mrs. Senser to refrain from contact with investigators.  This was a case in which there is a dearth of concrete evidence.  There is a lot of circumstantial stuff that points to Mrs. Senser's guilt, but without her statements to bind everything together, I think it's going to be very difficult for the prosecution to prove that she knew she hit Mr. Phanthavong.  Her knowledge of having hit a person is necessary to create the duty for her to stop and attend to the victim.  By not allowing into evidence the fact that Mrs. Senser didn't speak with investigators, it takes away the theory that her silence has been intended to hide something.  This is important for the defense in a case that will be built so much around what the prosecution can prove, not what the defense can disprove.  I think the judge's reconsideration of this motion was clearly the correct ruling.  It's good that he was able to realize his mistake before this went to trial.  Such an error would have given the defense a clear issue to appeal upon a guilty plea.  Kudos to the judge for doing the right thing and reversing his initial decision.

2.  A motion to prevent the defense from introducing evidence that Mr. Phanthavong had a large amount of cocaine in his system at the time of his death was upheld.  This isn't a surprising ruling.  Such evidence would be more useful to the defense in a civil trial, where they could argue that the victim was guilty of contributory negligence, which would lessen the culpability of Mrs. Senser.  In a criminal case, however, such evidence would clearly be prejudice against the prosecution.  Whether Mr. Phanthavong had cocaine in his system does not change the alleged actions of Mrs. Senser.  If she indeed knew that she hit a person on that night, the condition of the person has nothing to do with her decision to flee the scene.  The only purpose for such evidence would be to prove that the accident itself was not the fault of Mrs. Senser, but since that fact isn't at issue in this trial, the prejudicial effect of such evidence outweighs its exculpatory elements.

3.  Judge Mabley has agreed to allow the prosecution to show video clips of vehicle-pedestrian accident recreations.  Not having seen the actual video, I can't comment on its content.  I can say, however, that recreation videos like this are typically the bane of defense attorneys' existence.  They tend to be incredibly prejudicial towards the defense and paint the picture the prosecution wants painted.  Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, has said that he feels the clips do not accurately depict the crash scene.  The prosecution, on the other hand, says that the videos are intended only to bolster the credibility of a specific expert witness they plan to call and that it should be viewed by the jury in that limited scope.  I understand the point made here by the prosecution, but I can assure you that it is nearly impossible to tell something to the jury but inform them only to consider it through a limited lens.  Once the jury learns something, it colors the way they think about the case in its entirety.  However, I assume that Judge Mabley took into consideration any prejudicial affect these videos could have and weighed that against their necessity.  I will say that this is something to keep an eye on during the trial.

There were numerous other motions ruled on by Judge Mabley, but most of them were either pretty straight-forward or inconsequential.  This thing is close to getting very interesting, however, as the trial won't be too much farther down the road.  I'll keep adding commentary to the proceedings as it moves along, as this case interests me greatly.  As a defense attorney, it's always useful to get a high-profile case to follow in order to get some insight into how other lawyers handle certain situations.  In our profession, you either continue to learn new techniques or you become obsolete.  I'm excited to see how everything plays out in this trial.

If you or a loved one find yourself in the middle of a criminal investigation, you should follow Amy Senser's lead and contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney before you offer any information to law enforcement.  Doing so could be the difference between innocence and guilt.

As always, the contents of this blog are not intended to be legal advertising, legal advice, nor does the reading of this information create an attorney/client relationship between yourself and the author.  If you are in need of legal advice, stop browsing the internet for information and get on the phone with a qualified Minnesota criminal defense attorney.  Your situation is unique and you should treat it as the serious threat to your liberty that it is.

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