Families react to Franco's sentence in bus crashby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
A district court judge in Marshall today sentenced Olga Franco to 12-1/2 years in prison. Franco was convicted two months ago of driving the van which struck a school bus in southwest Minnesota last February, killing four children and injuring 17 others. Family and friends of the victims poured out their grief during the sentencing hearing.
Marshall, Minn. — The crash occurred Feb. 19 on Highway 23 in southwest Minnesota, just south of the town of Cottonwood. A van traveling east on a county road went through a stop sign and struck the Lakeview School District bus.
During the court hearing, family members of the victims said the chill of that cold, blustery day will linger a lifetime. Emilee Olson, 9, was one of the students killed. Her mother Traci Olson told the court her family relives the tragedy every day.
"We say good night and good morning to an empty bed," said Olson.
Rita and Marty Javens lost two children in the crash, Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13. Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, Rita Javens mourned her lost children.
"There's just not words that can be said about what she's taken away from us," said Javens. "Our hurt will never end, and she needs to realize that. These were our babies, these were our pride and joy."
The fourth child killed was Reed Stevens, 12.
"Essentially, our entire family was killed that day," said his mother Kandi.
Olga Franco has maintained her boyfriend was driving the van when it struck the school bus. She says he was thrown out of the van and left the scene of the accident. He has not been found. Franco says the force of the crash threw her into the driver's seat, where rescue workers found her.
Franco did not speak in court, but she did enter a statement which was read by an interpreter. Franco asked for forgiveness for the pain the accident caused. But she again said she was not the driver.
That upset victims' family members. Kim Louwagie had two daughters injured in the crash.
"It's really hard to forgive someone who keeps lying and denies what they did," said Louwagie. "I cannot forgive her until she can come out and say, 'I'm sorry for what I did.'"
In the courtroom, prosecutor Lyon County Attorney Rick Maes called the bus crash a horrific incident that destroyed families. At one point his voice choked with emotion.
Maes said Olga Franco made bad choices in life, which culminated in her driving a van on a cold winter day just south of Cottonwood.
Maes said Franco came to the U.S. illegally from her native Guatemala and hid her identity. He called her life a "lie." Maes says she could have chosen another course and spared the students.
Maes asked Judge David Peterson to sentence Franco to more than 20 years in prison. In the end, the judge set her prison time at 150 months, which is 12 and a half years.
After the hearing, Maes said the earliest Franco could be released from prison would be in just over eight years.
"I don't know if the judge could have pronounced a sentence that anyone felt was fair," said Maes. "Four children lost their lives. Hundreds of families have been impacted. That will always be with them."
During the sentencing hearing, Franco's attorney Manuel Guerrero acknowledged the pain the accident had caused. He urged the judge to be lenient, saying revenge has no place in the U.S. justice system.
In the end, Guerrero said he was disappointed not only with the length of the sentence Judge Peterson imposed, but how he handled it as well.
"I was confused about the whole thing. It was bizarre as far as I was concerned," said Guerrero. "Because then he made the statement that this trial was about the victims -- totally ignoring the fact that it was my client's trial and an exercise of her rights."
Guerrero said he expects Franco to serve her time at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.
Guerrero said there will be an appeal on Franco's behalf, but said he probably will not lead it. He said he intends to ask the state public defenders office to handle the appeal.
- All Things Considered, 10/08/2008, 5:20 p.m.