INDIO, Calif. - Jurors returned a guilty verdict today in the trial of an Indio man accused of slashing his girlfriend's throat with a box cutter, then running the 41-year-old teacher over with her Toyota Prius after the initial attack failed to kill her.
Michael John Franco, 46, faces life in prison without parole in the murder 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 addition to first-degree murder, Franco was also found guilty of special circumstance allegations of torture and committing the murder during the commission of a kidnapping.
Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon to decide whether Franco killed Grant deliberately or if the act was committed while he was less than fully conscious due to methamphetamine intoxication, as argued by the defense.
Franco claimed that after shooting up methamphetamine at their home in the 84-400 block of Onda Drive, he received a text message from a friend, asking for his drug dealer's phone number, which prompted a violent, night-long 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.
Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk told the jury that no such arrangement existed and his continued drug use was a strain on their relationship, with Grant pushing Franco to attend rehab and regularly drug-testing him at their home.
Franco testified that he has no memory of killing Grant because of the methamphetamine, leaving 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, defense attorney Dante Gomez argued that Franco is at most guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
But Kirk argued 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 said in her closing argument 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 on his phone from the defendant's phone 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 allegedly 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)''
"She would do anything, make up any story, just to get medical attention,'' Kirk told jurors.
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 the body's discovery, surveillance footage from an Indio gas station was found that shows a man strongly resembling Franco removing brush from the front of the car and wiping something off a wheel. Franco admitted 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.
Prosecutors allege that days after the killing, Franco 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.''
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.