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Franco tells jury her story, says boyfriend was driving van

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Olga Franco took the stand in her own defense today. Speaking through an interpreter, the 24-year old woman said her boyfriend was driving the minivan that crashed into a school bus, killing four children. Franco spent much of the day on the stand testifying about the moments before and after the crash. She's facing four counts of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges as a result of the crash last February near Cottonwood in southwestern Minnesota. 

One of the key questions in the case is how Franco wound up pinned under the dashboard in the driver's seat when she says her boyfriend was driving.  Franco detailed a sequence of events that concluded with her in the driver's seat. 

She said she and her boyfriend, Francisco Mendoza, were arguing as they approached the intersection.  As the minivan closed in on the school bus she said she told Mendoza to stop. She said she unbuckled her seat belt before the crash.  

Kandiyohi County Courthouse
Olga Franco's trial will take place in the Kandiyohi County Courthouse in Willmar. Franco is accused of killing four students in a fatal school bus crash near Cottonwood in February of 2008.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Franco's attorney asked her why she unbuckled her safety belt. She said it was so she could get out of the minivan. When the vehicle hit the school bus the air bags went off. 

She said the force of the crash combined with the passenger side air bag hitting her pushed her to the left, so she was half on the driver's side seat and half in the space between the seats.  Then, she said, she grabbed the steering wheel and pulled herself into the driver's seat to be more comfortable because she was injured. 

She said she looked down and saw Mendoza outside the van on the ground. She said he got up, tried to get her out, but couldn't.  She said at that point he took off running. 

The defense called forensic engineer Donn Peterson to back up Franco's version of events. Peterson said when the van crashed into the bus, which was moving; the bus pulled the minivan to the right, spinning it violently.  

Olga Franco
Olga Franco walks to the courthouse for a hearing to determine whether her trial will be moved out of Kandiyohi County to the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Peterson had graphics on a screen that showed how occupants of a vehicle, who weren't buckled in, would be tossed around.  It showed someone in the driver's seat being thrown out the driver's door, and the passenger being thrown into the driver's seat.  Technically, Peterson said the occupants moved forward in the crash and the van itself moved around them.  

A State Patrol expert, testifying for the prosecution, said everything in the van, occupants and objects, would have moved nearly straight forward in the crash. 

Under cross examination by the prosecuting attorney, Peterson admitted he hadn't taken measurements at the crash site, and only took measurements from the wrecked vehicles two months after the accident.  The engineer also said his data showed that the minivan was travelling slower than all the witnesses involved in the crash had described.

Franco didn't provide much of an explanation for another key fact, how her right foot became pinned near the gas pedal. She said she thought it must have happened when she was thrown to the side. But under cross examination, she wasn't certain at what point during or after the crash that her foot became pinned. The defense maintains it could have happened when Franco was thrown into the driver's seat. 

Franco hasn't spoken a word publicly since the February crash. On the stand, she spoke in a soft voice, but appeared quite calm.  She cried frequently during the testimony, particularly when talking about her boyfriend.  But in general she was composed.  She testified for nearly three hours, and by the end she appeared drained, her face drawn.

She testified that during their relationship of a several months Mendoza hit her several times.  She said he was very jealous.  She said they were arguing before the accident.  Afterwards, while she was pinned in the van, she said he told her that her life would be in danger if she told anyone he was driving.  

She said since he'd hit her before it was a threat she took seriously. According to court documents, Franco originally told investigators she was driving, but then changed her story and said Mendoza was the driver.

The defense has rested its case and a few more witnesses are scheduled for Wednesday morning, followed by closing arguments. Judge David Peterson told jurors they will be sequestered during deliberations.