SANTA ROSA -- Dylan Morse was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years, four months in state prison for drinking and driving, killing one man, and injuring two other people -- one of whom was his best friend.
Morse, the 18-year-old son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, sat quietly, his face red, and his hands folded in front of him, as Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Gnoss determined his fate.
"We will not tolerate, we will not accept this type of crime," Gnoss said, in making his decision, which was recommended by Sonoma County's probation department.
Dylan Morse must serve at least 85 percent of that sentence, which means he'll be eligible for parole in about 10 years, four months.
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Dylan Morse was arrested Feb. 14 after causing a two-car collision near Cotati. California Highway Patrol investigators said the car he was driving, a 1998 Volvo, passed through a red light around 2:20 a.m., at the intersection of Stony Point Road and Highway 116. Dylan Morse smashed into a 1988 Honda driven by 22-year-old Alexander Ruiz of Oakland, killing him.
The crash seriously injured Dylan Morse's passenger, 19-year-old Ryne Spitzer, who remains in a coma. Vanessa King, the 25-year-old passenger in Ruiz's car, received a broken arm and facial lacerations.
In making his determination, Gnoss, a former prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office, said the decision was difficult, particularly because he has children in the same age group as the victims.
Although Gnoss acknowledged that he'd read letters from Dylan Morse's friends and family members, asking for leniency, he felt it was important to send a "strong" message to the community, with regard to drinking and driving. "No matter what the sentence, I hope that it does not come close to the sentence you should impose on yourself for the rest of your life," Gnoss told Morse sternly.
Dylan Morse cried profusely throughout much of the two and a half hour hearing, as members of the victim's family read impact statements. Wearing a light blue dress shirt and khakis, he took out a yellow piece of paper, and read a written statement to the victims' families, apologizing for his actions.
In the part of his speech directed at Ruiz's family, he said in a lowered voice, "All I can say to you is I will spend the rest of my life honoring Alex, by trying to live a life worthy of him," Dylan Morse said.
The courtroom was packed with supporters of families on all sides. More than a dozen of Ruiz's family members wore white T-shirts with a photograph of him smiling.
Michael Ruiz, the father of Alexander Ruiz, declined comment after leaving the courtroom. During the hearing, he called his son "one of the best people that this world offered."
A video of Alexander Ruiz was played in court, showcasing his talents as a musician, playing guitar, enjoying the company of friends and family. The video also showed portions of a celebration held in honor of Ruiz after his death.
Michael Ruiz called Dylan Morse's actions selfish and arrogant, saying that although he wishes Morse no harm, he needs to atone for his crimes. "There is no sentence for Dylan Morse that will undo his actions," Ruiz said. The victim's father also said that society "needs to see, when a person, drinks, drives and kills -- that person goes to prison."
Alexander Ruiz's mother, Lydia Ruiz, referred to her son as the nickname "papalote," or "little kite," saying her son was a "conduit of good" and a creative spirit who wrote music "like it was inhaling and exhaling."
She told Gnoss that she hopes prison will give Morse time "to reflect and plan his corrective actions."
"We need to understand how our choices can bring goodness or devastation," she said.
Larry Morse and his wife, Cindy, sat quietly in the back of the courtroom throughout much of the hearing. The couple quickly left the courtroom immediately after Gnoss read the sentence of 12 years, four months in prison. They returned to the courtroom later, but had no comment.
After the hearing, Larry Morse wept outside the courthouse, as members of his family consoled him.
Chris Andrian, Dylan Morse's attorney, called Gnoss' decision, "grossly unfair and unjust" citing that his client is young, had no previous criminal record and has been in treatment since the collision happened. Andrian also said even Spitzer's parents had asked the judge for leniency in sentencing Dylan Morse.
Andrian argued for a sentence of probation, saying that the state's prison system is "broken," adding that Dylan Morse would not be able to access programs that could assist with his rehabilitation. "I thought the only person without compassion in that courtroom today was the judge," Andrian said after the hearing.
Mark Spitzer, Ryne Spitzer's father and a Merced otolaryngologist, said the sentencing was excessive. "(Morse) is an intelligent, heartfelt young man who made a horrible mistake. There's already one loss of life, another one that's struggling, and another one that's been taken away," Spitzer said.
In May, Dylan Morse pleaded guilty to three felony and three misdemeanor counts. Gnoss sentenced Morse to 16 months in prison for felony driving under the influence and causing a bodily injury to another person. Attached to that charge were three enhancements, for which Gnoss sentenced Morse to three years for killing Ruiz, five years for injuring Spitzer, and three years for injuring King. Those sentences will run consecutively.
Gnoss did not sentence Dylan Morse on felony charges of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and causing bodily injury while driving with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent.
Gnoss sentenced Morse to 30 days in prison for having a fake driver's license, and 30 days for being underage with alcohol in his car. Those sentences will run concurrent with his 12-year, four-month prison sentence. Gnoss took no action on a misdemeanor possession of less than 28.5 grams of marijuana charge.
In arguing for the 12-year, four month sentence, Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner said Morse and Spitzer had gone to a fraternity party around 11:45 p.m. in Rohnert Park on Feb. 13, where they were drinking.
Less than two hours later, at 1:50 a.m., Dylan Morse was inside a Rohnert Park Safeway buying alcohol with a fake driver's license, Waner said. CHP investigators had obtained video surveillance footage of the purchase. "Thirty minutes later, Alex is dead. Vanessa (King) is trapped in the car while he expired," Waner said.
Dylan Morse was driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent, nearly double the state's legal limit, according to investigators. Dylan Morse went by the name "Richard James" on the fake driver's license, Waner said, saying that Morse had been "amused" when he'd used it. "It's not so amusing now," Waner said.
In another twist to the case, Dylan Morse had driven Ryne Spitzer to a court-mandated DUI class on Feb. 13 -- less than a day before the crash in Cotati happened, Waner said.
On July 23 last year, Ryne Spitzer was pulled over by Merced police on suspicion of drinking and driving after he passed through a stop light at G Street and El Portal Drive.
Spitzer has been in a coma since the crash, and is being cared for at Care Meridian hospital in Marin County.
Morse was handcuffed immediately after the hearing, and taken back to the Sonoma County Jail. Andrian said the prison where Morse will begin serving his sentence has not been determined.
The Ruiz family has filed a civil lawsuit against Dylan Morse, Ryne Spitzer and Safeway Inc. King has also filed a similar civil lawsuit.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.