An Indio man was convicted of first-degree murder Monday for 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.
Michael John Franco, 46, is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without parole May 11 for 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.
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.
The victim’s brother said outside the courtroom that the guilty verdicts brought him “a large degree of relief.”
“It has been a long time coming. Much too long,” Michael Thomas said, adding that the experience of testifying early on in the trial and then having to stay away in case he was called back to the stand was “torture.”
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, 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.
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.
The victim’s brother, commenting on the defense case, said: “The lies told by Mr. Gomez were disgraceful.”
Thomas said he did not know Franco well, but “well enough to know that I didn’t like him.” But it made sense that his sister would try to see the good in Franco, he said.
“She had a big heart and always wanted to help people,” he said.
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, 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 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 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 the jury.
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 was found that shows a man strongly resembling Franco removing brush from the front of the car and wiping something off a wheel. 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.
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,” 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.
— City News Service
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