Franco guilty on all 24 countsby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
A jury in Willmar last night found Olga Franco guilty of driving a minivan into a school bus and killing four children last February near Cottonwood.
The verdict was announced just after 10 p.m. last night at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse. Jurors found Franco guilty of four counts of vehicular homicide and twenty other charges related to the accident.
Willmar, Minn. — The jury in the Olga Franco trial heard testimony for four days and deliberated for about eight hours.
Franco showed no emotion as the verdict was announced. Afterward, family members of the victims streamed out of the courthouse.
"I knew she was guilty. I knew it. From all the evidence I knew she was guilty; there's no way that she couldn't have been," said Rita Javens who lost two sons in the crash, 9-year-old Hunter and 13-year-old Jesse.
Javens hopes the verdict brings some closure to the families and the children involved in the crash.
"I just hope that everyone can move on," said Javens. "I just hope things will get better for the for the children, that's my main concern. I worry about the children like they're all mine, and I have from day one."
Rita's husband Marty Javens said the verdict is a big boost for the community of Cottonwood where the accident took place. Javens offered praise to the prosecutor, Lyon County attorney Rick Maes.
Maes himself said he was pleased with the verdict and relieved that the emotional trial was over.
"It's been hard on the community," Maes said. "And talking with the families, they wanted the answers, and this is the process in which we got that answer."
Franco maintained that her boyfriend, Francisco Mendoza, drove the van into the school bus.
During the trial Maes argued that Franco had been driving. He says his strongest evidence was always that Franco was found behind the wheel after the crash, her right foot stuck near the gas pedal.
"There really in my mind is no explanation for how a person would get pinned in there, other than the fact that she was driving," said Maes.
Franco took the stand in her own defense and told jurors that Mendoza was thrown from the vehicle, and she was tossed into the driver's seat by the force of the crash. The prosecution did not dispute that Mendoza had been in the van.
A member of Franco's defense team, Neal Eisenbraun, said he was shocked at the verdict, and so was his client.
"I think she's in shock too. I don't think she understands the situation. I don't think she ever has. She's got a sixth grade education," said Eisenbraun.
In his closing argument, Eisenbraun told the jury that the state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Franco was driving. It's something he still believed after the verdict was announced.
"I've never seen a case with more doubt, and without talking to the people who made the decision, I have no idea how they arrived at it," Eisenbraun said.
Eisenbraun says the defense may ask the judge to set aside the verdict based on the argument that no reasonable jury would have convicted Franco.
Franco's lead attorney Manuel Guerro said little about the case as he left the courthouse. But before the trial, Guerrero was wary of some potential jurors views on illegal immigration.
Officials have said Franco, a native of Guatemala, is living in the country illegally. Guerrero thinks that may have played some part in Franco's guilty verdict.
"Well, I think a lot of factors were critical. Immigration is one of them," said Guerro.
Franco faces a federal trial and, most likely, deportation for identity theft and other charges related to her immigration status. But that won't happen until after she serves a sentence for her role in the bus crash.
The four vehicular homicide charges carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison each. The dozens of criminal vehicular injury charges each carry maximum sentences of anywhere from a year to three years.
The judge in the case says he'll hand down Olga Franco's sentence in the next 30 to 45 days.
Olga Franco's charges:
- Counts 1-4: Criminal vehicular homicide
- Counts 5-21: Criminal vehicular injury
- Count 22: Giving a false name and date of birth to a police officer
- Count 23: Stop sign violation
- Count 24: Driving without a Minnesota driver's license