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Opening arguments set for this morning in crash trial

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Opening arguments will begin at 8 a.m. today in the trial of the Guatemalan woman accused of causing the fatal school bus crash near Cottonwood.

Jury selection was completed around 2 p.m. Wednesday in the trial of Olga Marina Franco Del Cid, 24, of Minneota, who faces a total of 24 charges stemming from the Feb. 19 crash.

Defense attorney Manuel Guerrero has alluded to his argument during the three-day jury selection process. Judge David W. Peterson, in a July 16 order, ruled that the defense team can argue that Franco's boyfriend, identified as Francisco Sangabriel Mendoza, also known as Samuel Rivera Melendrez, was driving the minivan that struck the school bus.

"If she wasn't driving, she isn't guilty," Guerrero said on Monday.

"The only issue here is was Ms. Franco driving that minivan or was someone else driving."

Lyon County Attorney Rick Maes, who is the lone prosecutor on the case, has not given many clues during jury selection on the evidence to be presented during the trial. His questioning has included queries about potential jurors' interests, families, leadership qualities and, if they watch crime dramas on television, whether or not they believe what is presented in shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Maes, in an April comment to the Marshall Independent, said that "I do not know of any information that would even remotely suggest that there was a different driver."

According to court and State Patrol documents, the bus was southbound on state Highway 23 around 3:45 p.m. Feb. 19 when it was struck by a minivan allegedly driven by Franco. The bus rolled onto its side in the roadway. The crash happened at the intersection with Lyon County Road 24 just south of Cottonwood.

Franco faces four charges of criminal vehicular homicide for the Feb. 19 deaths of four Lakeview School students: Jesse Javens, 13; his brother, Hunter Javens, 9; Emilee Olson, 9; and Reed Stevens, 12. Sixteen other children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15 years old, and another driver whose vehicle was struck by the bus, were injured in the crash. Franco, who also was injured in the wreck, is accused of 17 charges of criminal vehicular injury.

Franco, who is also known as Alianiss Nunes Morales, is also charged with a gross misdemeanor for giving a false name to a peace officer and misdemeanor charges for driving without a license and for not stopping at a stop sign.

The Lyon County case has been moved to Willmar under a change of venue. Judge Peterson, who is chambered in Redwood County, is presiding.

The jurors seated for the trial include five men and 10 women. They will hear the evidence in the case, and the number will be reduced to 12 members before jury deliberations. There were 37 potential jurors from Kandiyohi County questioned during jury selection.