Defense opens its case in Cottonwood bus crashby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Olga Franco's attorney began to lay out her side of the story in a Kandiyohi County courtroom today. Franco, 24, is accused of crashing a minivan into a school bus, causing the death of four students near Cottonwood last February. Franco's attorney told jurors she wasn't driving the van, and that the prosecution hasn't proven its case.
Willmar, Minn. — Last week, prosecuting attorney Rick Maes delivered two days of testimony from witnesses who saw Olga Franco behind the wheel of the minivan after it crashed into a school bus on Feb. 19, 2008.
The strongest testimony came from EMTs who said they found Franco trapped behind the wheel of the minivan, with her right foot pinned near the gas pedal.
But as he began his defense, attorney Manuel Guerrero said, "things are not always as they seem."
Guerrero told jurors the state hadn't proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that he intends to convince the jury that Franco was not driving the minivan.
Yes, Franco was behind the wheel after the crash, said Guerrero, but he laid out a scenario of why that happened.
He said Franco's boyfriend, Francisco Mendoza, was driving, and they were fighting over a personal matter. Mendoza ran through a stop sign and hit the bus. The van spun around nearly 300 degrees, throwing Mendoza from the car and tossing Franco halfway onto the driver's seat.
After the accident, she pulled herself upright using the steering wheel and ended up fully in the driver's seat, where rescue workers found her.
Guerrero says the boyfriend fled the scene shortly after the crash and hasn't been seen since. Guerrero pointed out that no one has testified that they actually saw Franco driving the minivan.
Guerrero didn't explain how Franco's foot became lodged near the gas pedal, but told jurors he'll call an orthopedic specialist and a biomechanical engineer to the witness stand to explain the details of what happened during the crash.
Guerrero has to counter evidence from a state patrol accident reconstruction. The expert who put together the report said that when the minivan hit the bus, everything in the car -- whether people or objects -- was forced nearly straight ahead, not side to side.
A cousin of Franco testified today that Franco never drove. The cousin said she came upon the accident after it happened, and didn't understand why Franco was behind the wheel.
The defense then called several witnesses to bolster its assertion that Mendoza was at the scene.
Two witnesses said they saw someone running down the road after the accident. Another witness also saw a man, later identified as Francisco Mendoza, running down that same road, and gave him a ride to Minneota. Federal officials say a few days later, Mendoza made his way to Mexico.
Guerrero also called a psychiatrist who has counseled Olga Franco since the accident. The defense attorney has said that Franco was abused by her boyfriend. But a string of prosecution objections prevented the psychiatrist from saying whether Franco was afraid of Mendoza.
After only a few basic questions, Guerrero ended his questioning, the witness was dismissed and the jury was excused for the day.
Outside the courtroom, family members of victims of the bus crash weighed in on the issue of domestic abuse in the trial.
Two of Joan DesLaurier's grandsons, Hunter and Jesse Javens, were killed in the crash.
"If she was abused I really feel sorry for her, but that has nothing to do with this case," said DesLaurier.
The defense will call more witnesses tomorrow. Attorney Manuel Guerrero says he still hasn't decided whether his client, Olga Franco, will testify.
The jury could begin deliberating on the case sometime this week.
- All Things Considered, 08/04/2008, 5:20 p.m.