Manslaughter not an option in Porter case, judge rules

Jury must acquit or convict of murder, abuse

July 26, 2008 

  • AT A GLANCE



    Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff ruled Friday that Howard "Doug" Porter, charged in the death of rancher Frank Craig in 2004, cannot face manslaughter charges. Instead, jurors must decide between conviction or acquittal on these charges:
    • MURDER: If the jury finds Porter guilty of first-degree murder related to a truck wreck in 2004 and either of two special circumstances prosecutors allege -- that Porter killed Craig for financial gain or to silence a witness to his embezzlement -- Porter would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury rejects the special circumstances, a first-degree murder conviction would bring a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. If the jury opts for second-degree murder, Porter would face 15 years to life in prison.
    • ATTEMPTED MURDER: If the jury thinks Porter tried to kill Craig in a truck wreck in 2002, Porter could be sentenced to seven years to life for attempted murder, plus five more years because Craig was more than 70 years old at the time of the crash.
    • ELDER ABUSE: Two other charges stem from Porter's role as a caretaker for Craig, because Craig gave Porter power of attorney over his financial and health care decisions. If the jury believes Porter abused his position, causing Craig's death, Porter could face as much as 11 years in prison. If the jury believes Porter abused his position as a caretaker to embezzle from Craig, Porter could face as much as six years in prison.

Jurors will have to make an all-or-nothing choice when it comes to the murder charge former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter faces.

Manslaughter will not be an option in the case, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff said Friday, because there is no evidence that rancher Frank Craig died as the result of a sudden quarrel or altercation erupting in the heat of passion.

And the defense won't be able to argue that the fatal crash involving Craig was the result of reckless or negligent driving because the judge said his review of California law shows vehicular manslaughter is not an option.

"The defense simply is not entitled to any manslaughter instruction in this case," Zeff said.

The 12 jurors could find Porter guilty of first-degree murder if they unanimously agree that Porter planned Craig's death or second-degree murder if they find that Porter violated a legal duty that resulted in Craig's death.

If jurors don't think the government proved its case, they must acquit.

Had manslaughter been an option, and had Porter been convicted of it, he could have been sentenced to as much as 11 years in prison. A vehicular manslaughter conviction typically results in a sentence of a year or less in jail. Porter has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006.

Attorneys met with the judge to hash out the instructions the jury will receive once the evidence is in. The trial, which began May 12 with jury selection, will be back in session Monday when jurors return and the defense resumes. Closing arguments are expected later in the week.

Money is the alleged motive for murder in the trial, which stemmed from the death of Craig, who had millions but lived like a pauper, bristling over the high cost of milk.

Craig collected farm equipment for decades, including treasures that some of his friends thought were junk, and he dreamed of showcasing them in an agricultural museum.

Porter, who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades, struck a deal with Craig in 1999, when he agreed to shepherd the project as long as it benefited his church as well.

The museum never was more than a plan on paper, but authorities claim Porter siphoned off $1.1 million from Craig, using much of the money to build a four-home complex around a trout pond in La Grange, where Porter lived with his wife and members of their extended family.

Craig was 83 in 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 in 2004 when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, went off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal. Craig was crippled in the first crash and drowned in the second.

Porter, 57, walked away both times. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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