California prosecutors believe the son of the Merced County district attorney was behind the wheel of a vehicle last year during a drive-by shooting that claimed a teenager’s life, according to documents obtained Tuesday by the Merced Sun-Star.
The defense attorney representing Ethan B. Morse, son of Larry D. Morse II, said his client is innocent and that the Merced County Sheriff’s Department has arrested the wrong person.
Morse, 18, appeared briefly Tuesday in Merced Superior Court, but did not enter a plea to charges of murder and permitting another person to shoot from his vehicle in connection with the death of Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18. Hernandez-Canela was shot and killed March 30, 2013, at a large house party in the 9200 block of Westside Boulevard near Atwater.
Morse was 16 at the time of the incident. He was arrested Friday outside his Merced home.
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Morse, who graduated in June from Golden Valley High School, is also accused of acting in association with a criminal street gang. If convicted of all charges, Morse faces a potential life prison sentence, according to the documents filed Tuesday.
Morse’s co-defendant, Jacob Tellez, 18, of Merced, also known as Jacob Logan, has been charged as the shooter in Hernandez-Canela’s death, according to court records.
Two others, Samantha Parreira, 16, and Mathew Fisher, 19, were also shot and killed during the same house party. Jose L. Botello and Jose M. Carballido, both 19-year-old Atwater residents, have been charged as co-defendants in connection with the deaths of Parreira and Fisher.
Investigators believe the party started as an Easter celebration for high school students, drawing more than 100 people, including members of rival street gangs. Detectives have declined to comment on any incidents at the party that may have sparked the violence. They also have not said whether any weapons have been recovered.
State attorneys are handling both cases in light of the alleged connection of the Merced district attorney’s son.
Morse appeared in court Tuesday via video monitor, wearing a long-sleeved, lime green jail shirt. He made no statements, only answering a record-keeping question regarding his date of birth from visiting Judge Donald E. Shaver.
Barton Bowers, the deputy attorney general prosecuting the case, said he does not plan to seek the death penalty against Morse.
The Merced County district attorney did not attend his son’s arraignment Tuesday. However, his wife, Cindy, was present. The veteran Merced prosecutor has referred media questions about the case to his son’s attorney, Kirk McAllister.
McAllister asked the judge to postpone the arraignment to allow time for the defense to go through the evidence. Morse is due back in court Aug. 7. He remains in custody in Mariposa County Jail without bail.
McAllister on Tuesday continued to criticize the investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s Department. McAllister said Morse is innocent of any wrongdoing. He indicated Morse does not know who committed the crime but came forward to tell investigators that he was with Tellez on the night in question and never saw him fire a weapon.
“He went to say, ‘No, you got the wrong guy,’ and it turned out to be a more dangerous act of citizenship than he ever intended it to be,” McAllister said outside the courthouse Tuesday.
McAllister said it was never a matter of Morse withholding evidence but wanting to tell the Sheriff’s Department that Tellez should not be considered a suspect in the case.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment. Sheriff Tom Cavallero has said he has confidence in the work done by the Major Crimes Unit and noted that state prosecutors appear to have confidence in the case as well.
Tellez, Botello and Carballido are expected to appear again today in Merced Superior Court. They all have been accused of personally firing guns on the night of the triple homicide.
Morse is charged with murder, though he is not accused of firing any weapons or killing anyone directly.
California is one of several states in which the person accused of being behind the wheel in an alleged drive-by shooting is as legally responsible for the incident as the alleged shooter, according to professor Stephen Routh, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Stanislaus.
“In general, a person charged in that situation is basically an accomplice, someone who aided and abetted the crime,” Routh explained. “Under California law, they’re held as responsible for the crime as the actual shooter.”