A jury won't hear about a .22-caliber pistol authorities found after Frank Craig's GMC plunged into the Ceres Main Canal east of Hickman, a judge said Tuesday, because a prosecutor cannot explain exactly why the gun was in the pickup truck driven by former pastor Doug Porter.
The defense may call witnesses who say Porter has a habit of turning to talk with passengers while he is driving, a practice that could have contributed to the April 22, 2004, crash that killed Craig and a March 5, 2002, crash in which Porter was at the wheel and Craig was crippled.
And both sides must refer to the crashes as "incidents" when the high-profile case comes to trial May 12 in Stanislaus County Superior Court, because the word "accident" is too loaded.
"In the context of this litigation, the term 'accident' could unduly confuse the jury," Judge Thomas Zeff said.
The rulings, which came as the judge sorted through a host of pretrial motions filed by both sides, will determine the scope of the arguments at a two- to three-month trial that likely will draw widespread attention because of its spectacular allegations.
Porter, a preacher who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades, is accused of killing Craig, an elderly rancher who dreamed of using his $2.5 million inheritance to build an agricultural museum.
Authorities contend that Porter promised to build a museum to showcase antique farm equipment Craig collected, but drained Craig's accounts and killed the 85-year-old in a car crash to cover his misappropriation.
Porter, 56, is charged with murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder adult by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. He has been held without bail since he was arrested Nov. 27, 2006.
He flashed a big smile at friends and family who were in the courtroom to show their support. He returns to court May 6 for another pretrial hearing.
Attorneys said they will rely on an extensive written questionnaire to narrow the field of potential jurors after jury selection begins.
When the trial begins, the jury is expected to hear from prosecution witnesses who believe Craig planned to confront Porter about the lack of progress on the museum he envisioned.
The prosecution also is expected to call members of the church's board of elders to talk about a meeting that took place shortly before Craig died, in which Porter allegedly suggested that the museum project would be a lot easier to complete if Craig were dead.
But the district attorney's office will not be able to talk about the gun investigators found in Craig's pickup truck after the fatal crash. A prosecutor said the gun may have been a backup in case the second crash didn't kill Craig, but he couldn't support that assertion with hard evidence.
"It's a reasonable inference that the gun was there in order to be available for use," Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said.
A defense attorney said his client is nothing more than a bad driver.
"Mr. Porter is a poor driver," said attorney Kirk McAllister. "There's certainly plenty of witnesses who can testify to that."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.