Defense argues woman was not the driver in Cottonwood bus crashby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Attorneys have mapped out their defense of a woman accused of crashing into a school bus and killing four children in southwestern Minnesota. At a court hearing in Marshall today, Franco's lawyers said they can prove she was not driving the van when it struck the bus. But a state trooper said he saw her in the driver's seat after the crash.
Marshall, Minn. — Olga Franco is charged with four counts of criminal vehicular homicide in the fatal bus crash near Cottonwood two months ago.
Franco did not speak during the hour-long hearing at the Lyon County Courthouse in Marshall. But her attorney, Manuel Guerrero, offered a preview of her defense if the case goes to trial.
Speaking to reporters after the court session, Guerrero said Franco is innocent. He said the guilty person is her boyfriend, who Guerrero maintains was actually driving the van when it hit the bus on Feb. 19. Four students from the Lakeview School District were killed in the accident, 15 other people were injured.
Guerrero said the boyfriend, Francisco Sangabriel-Mendoza, fled the scene of the accident and has not been found. Guerrero said investigators should try harder to find him and question him about the crash.
Guerrero does not dispute a fact that complicates his case. He acknowledged that Franco was found in the driver's seat after the accident, but said it was the force of the impact which put her there.
"I think that it was a matter of her being thrust in that position upon the impact of the van with the bus," said Guerrero. "Since she didn't have any seatbelts on and he didn't have any seatbelts on, she was thrown over in that direction and then she righted herself by grabbing the steering wheel and pulling herself up."
Guerrero said the boyfriend was thrown out of the van on impact. Guerrero also said there are witnesses who saw a man leaving the scene of the accident.
Crash investigators have said they saw no evidence that someone other than Olga Franco was driving the van.
In her first interview with law enforcement officials a few hours after the crash, Franco seemed to indicate she was driving.
Through an interpreter, Franco was quoted as saying, "I was driving to cabinet." The last word is an apparent reference to the cabinetry shop she worked at in Cottonwood.
Two days after that initial interview, Franco apparently changed her story and told investigators her boyfriend was driving.
Defense attorneys are trying to block the prosecution from using the two interviews as evidence.
During the hearing, defense attorney Guerrero raised several questions about the interviews -- among them, whether Olga Franco was properly read her Miranda rights. He also questioned whether law enforcement officials improperly continued to interview her after she indicated she wanted a lawyer.
The hearing also put on display some of the evidence prosecutors plan to bring against Franco.
State trooper Dana Larsen testified he arrived at the bus crash site about 10 minutes after the accident. He said when he approached the van he saw the driver "pinned" behind the steering wheel.
He said Olga Franco was the only person he saw in the van. Larsen said fire department officials later told him they had to lift the dashboard off her lap to get her out of the vehicle.
After the court hearing, defense attorney Manuel Guerrero said Olga Franco is in grief over the accident.
"She deeply regrets that there was injury to other people and she's expressed that sorrow to me. But she's also maintained that she wasn't driving the van," said Guerrero.
Lyon County Judge David Peterson did not rule on whether Franco's interviews can be admitted as evidence.
A second hearing is expected to include testimony from federal immigration officials. No date has been set yet for that hearing.
- All Things Considered, 04/22/2008, 5:20 p.m.