INDIO, Calif. - An Indio man convicted of slashing his girlfriend's throat with a box cutter, then running the 41-year-old high school teacher over with her Toyota Prius after the initial attack failed to kill her, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge handed down the sentence Friday morning.
Michael John Franco, 46, was convicted of murder in April for the slaying of Jill Grant, whose body was found at the Golf Club at Terra Lago by employees in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2013.
In court Friday, Grant's brother, Michael Thomas, delivered an emotional victim impact statement, calling Jill "bubbly, compassionate, and fun-loving." Franco sat stone-faced as he described her love of family and cats. Thomas gave gratitude to prosecutors and jury for their work. "Thank you very much," he said, "but none brings back Jill."
Franco was calm and seemed aloof at the beginning of the hearing, was warned by the judge about outbursts during the Deputy District Attorney's comments. Franco became emotional as he spoke to the judge. "Truth was never sought in this conviction," Franco said. Franco says he found the Lord while behind bars, asking the judge, "Please pray for me."
Jurors -- who deliberated about four hours over two days -- found true special circumstance allegations of torture and committing the murder during the commission of a kidnapping.
Prosecutors previously decided against seeking capital punishment for the defendant, who maintained he was less than fully conscious due to methamphetamine intoxication and had no memory of killing Grant.
Franco, who testified on his own behalf during the trial, claimed that after shooting up methamphetamine at the couple's home in the 84-400 block of Onda Drive, he received a text message from a friend who wanted his drug dealer's phone number.
He said the query prompted a violent, nightlong argument between the couple. Franco said the text message angered Grant because they had an agreement for him to only use meth in the house, due to his history of addiction.
Defense attorney Dante Gomez and Franco also maintained that Grant not only sanctioned Franco's drug use, but also supplied him with the meth he took on Dec. 22.
Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk told the jury that no such arrangement existed and the defendant's continued drug use was a strain on their relationship, with Grant pushing Franco to attend rehab and regularly drug-testing him at their home.
After taking the meth, Franco testified that he had no memory of killing Grant, with his memory "fuzzy" for a period of nearly 24 hours starting from the night of Dec. 22, 2013, until the following evening.
Due to his presumed memory lapse, Gomez argued that Franco was at most guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Kirk countered that Franco's actions showed his awareness of the consequences despite the "ridiculous" and "unacceptable" defense theory that he blacked out due to his meth use.
Kirk also told jurors that after cutting Grant's throat, Franco did not call for medical help despite Grant's pleas.
Those pleas were heard on an inadvertent "butt dial" call to Franco's friend, who told police he received a recorded message at 12:26 a.m. Dec. 23 and heard what sounded like "a female begging for her life" on the call.
In the recording, Grant appears to be telling Franco that they should call police and report that she was attacked by someone else. He responded that he would take her to a hospital and call 911, at which point Grant responds by saying, "Wait until I can think of another idea. What if I drive the car
someplace and call myself and say I was attacked? Would that work (inaudible)"
Kirk told the jury, "She would do anything, make up any story, just to get medical attention."
After five hours, he drove her out of the Terra Lago gated community under the pretense of getting her medical attention but actually intended to dump her in a canal near the golf course, the prosecutor said.
After noticing that Franco was driving in the opposite direction of the hospital, Grant ran from the car, prompting him to run her over with the Prius, Kirk said.
Shortly after her body was discovered, surveillance footage from an Indio gas station shows a man strongly resembling Franco removing brush from the front of the car and wiping something off one of the front wheels. Franco conceded the man in the footage looked like him but said he does not remember being there.
Franco was arrested Dec. 24, 2013, at a home in Palm Desert. Kirk said he was Tasered after he reached for a gun inside Grant's Prius and told arresting officers that he had planned to flee to Mexico after cleaning out his bank accounts. Franco was captured on surveillance footage withdrawing about $400 from an ATM, using Grant's credit card.
Days after the killing, he confessed to the crime to a fellow cellmate at the Indio jail, stating, "The human body is resilient" and "It is difficult for someone to actually die," according to the prosecution.
Franco denied making the statements, and Gomez claimed the inmate fabricated the exchange with Franco for a plea deal to avoid prison time on a vehicle theft charge.
Grant grew up in the Santa Rosa Mountains above Palm Springs and attended Palm Desert Middle School and Palm Desert High School, graduating in 1990. She attended College of the Desert, then transferred to Cal State San Bernardino, where she majored in mathematics.
She taught math at Palm Springs High School for three years, starting in 1995, then began teaching at her alma mater in 1998.
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