Ethan Morse, son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, will take to trial his claims that he was falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted in connection to a 2013 gang homicide in which he eventually was declared “innocent” by a judge.
The lawsuit Morse filed against Merced County and three sheriff’s detectives will be heard by a jury in October. Jurors will determine whether he was arrested without proper probable cause and whether he is owed any money for his legal expenses and emotional distress.
Attorneys representing Merced County and the detectives previously requested the trial be thrown out. After a June hearing, Judge Dale A. Drozd ruled this week that most of Morse’s claims could be decided by a jury.
“The conduct of the county and individual officers in this case was outrageous,” said Jayme Walker, an attorney with the Oakland-based Gwilliam, Ivory, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer law firm, who represents Morse. “This was conduct that violated clear constitutional rights.”
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Both Ethan and Larry Morse declined to comment on the ruling. Sheriff Vern Warnke also had no comment. Attorneys representing the detectives and Merced County did not respond to messages left by the Sun-Star.
Morse was arrested in July 2014 and charged with acting as the getaway driver in an alleged drive-by shooting that claimed the life of 18-year-old Bernabed Hernandez-Canela. He was one of three people gunned down at a house party on March 30, 2013, on Westside Boulevard in Atwater.
Deputies accused co-defendant Jacob Logan-Tellez of opening fire from Morse’s moving vehicle, killing Hernandez-Canela. Detectives said Morse knew Logan-Tellez was armed and had fired shots from the vehicle. Both defendants denied any shots were fired from Morse’s vehicle. Logan-Tellez said he was armed with a .22-caliber gun that night, but said he never fired it. His attorneys also noted that the coroner's report concluded Hernandez-Canela was shot with bullets from .38-caliber and .25-caliber firearms.
Morse was charged in the homicide in July 2014 after Logan-Tellez was arrested. Morse said he went to the Sheriff’s Office to tell them he was with Logan-Tellez at the party and that Logan-Tellez never fired a gun on that night.
Morse spent more than four months in custody and was released in November 2014 following a four-day preliminary hearing that ended with Judge Ronald W. Hansen taking the unusual step of declaring Morse and Logan-Tellez factually innocent of any wrongdoing in Hernandez-Canela’s death.
In his 36-page judgment, Drozd tossed out many claims against Detective Sam Sanchez. He only left on the table the claim that Sanchez, along with the other detectives, intentionally inflicted emotional distress against Morse.
Claims against the other two other detectives, supervising Detective-Sgt. Chuck Hale and Detective Erick Macias, were mostly left intact. Drozd threw out a claim against all three detectives that alleged the county and detectives didn’t release Morse from custody in a timely matter when new information in the case came to light.
In his decision, Drozd said Macias “cherry-picked” portions of witness interviews and evidence, making “misstatements” when writing his affidavit for Morse’s arrest. He also called the detectives’ interview tactics “ruses,” and said those tactics used have been linked to a number of false confessions in other cases.
“Simply put, the probable cause showing was nowhere near as strong as the (writer of the affidavit) led the reviewing magistrate to believe,” Drozd wrote.
Additionally, law enforcement pursued interviews and Morse’s arrest rapidly, leaving little time for the deputy attorney general prosecuting the case to independently review the evidence, the judge said.
“Imagine you’re 18 years old and falsely accused of a gang murder,” Walker said. “When you Google your name or are looking for a job, everything that comes up says you’re involved in this. Imagine what this does to your life.
“We’re going to be claiming substantial damages,” she said.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477