Jury selection began Monday in the case of former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter, who is suspected of murdering a rancher who entrusted his estate to the Hickman Community Church.
A two-week process is expected, with Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff beginning the exercise by questioning people who claim they cannot spend two to three months on jury duty for financial or personal reasons.
Court officials estimate that 135 of the 200 people in the initial pool will be excused for "hardships." People may be released if their employers will not compensate them or if jury duty would leave a dependent child or spouse or elderly relative without care.
The remaining 65 people will complete an extensive questionnaire prepared by attorneys involved in the case, who want to know about potential jurors' backgrounds and religious beliefs and if they have learned about the case though media accounts.
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People who answer more than 100 questions in writing will return to court later this week for in-person questioning. Potential jurors may be excused for "cause" if they cannot be fair to both sides.
The process will be repeated until the court finds 80 people who are qualified to hear evidence in Porter's case. Porter, 57, is accused of murdering 85-year-old Frank Craig, who has been described as a cranky bachelor who dreamed of building a museum to showcase farm equipment he collected over the decades.
Authorities allege that the preacher drained at least $1.1 million from the rancher's accounts without making progress on the museum. Porter is accused of killing Craig to cover his tracks by staging a March 5, 2002, auto wreck that crippled Craig and an April 22, 2004, wreck that killed him.
Porter was at the wheel and Craig was a passenger during both incidents.
Once a panel of 80 qualified jurors has been selected, attorneys involved in the case will select 12 jurors and five alternates.
The judge said he hopes to get to opening statements by May 28 and send the case to the jury for deliberations by late July or early August.
Porter faces life in prison if convicted of murdering Craig for financial gain and to quiet a witness who could have exposed his embezzlement. He has been held without bail since his arrest on Nov. 27, 2006.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.