Judging Amy

What do we want from the trial of Amy Senser?

On April 23, when Amy Senser goes to trial for the hit-and-run death of Anousone Phanthavong, it will be hard to give her a fair shake. She is the wife of a celebrity. She hit Phanthavong, an immigrant Thai chef, with a Mercedes SUV then parked it at her Edina home and went to sleep as though nothing had happened (she says she was aware of hitting something, just not a person). She comes across like Gatsby, smashing through the world and leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces. If the Marx Brothers were still around, they’d toss a pie in her salon-tanned face. But would a conviction make us feel better? It wouldn’t ease the current tension between the haves and have-nots, or, as one observer has optimistically spun it, the “haves and soon-to-haves.” It’s also conceivable, as Senser claims, that she did not see Phanthavong; it could have been anyone. So forget for a moment who she is and he was. It isn’t the income gap between driver and victim that is most appalling. It’s the seeming gap in Senser’s notion of responsibility—a virtue that, in this election year, is being defined in two starkly different ways: “look out for others” and “look out for yourself.” The difference is stoking a culture war in courthouses and capitols and opinion pages over just how much, if anything, we owe each other as we barrel through life in pursuit of our own happiness. Senser’s attorney  has blamed the victim, noting an autopsy report showing cocaine in Phanthavong’s system and implying that this may have caused him to act erratically. How Senser explains herself, and how a jury responds, may tell us a lot about the battle to come.