Merced DA's nephew takes plea on assault charge

The nephew of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II will be spending at least part of 2009 in a residential treatment facility, after pleading no contest to felony assault with a deadly weapon and other charges in Merced County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Judge Hugh Flanagan sentenced Matthew Edward Morse to six months in jail and a minimum of six months in a treatment facility, stemming from arrests that happened last year. One of those arrests included a Sept. 19 assault in the parking lot of Save Mart, at 180 W. Olive Ave.

Morse also pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence and a misdemeanor charge of possession of a concealed handgun.

The sentence was part of a plea deal reached between prosecutors and Morse's attorney, C. Logan McKechnie. The state Office of the Attorney General was asked to handle the case, in order to avoid a conflict of interest with Merced County District Attorney's Office.

After the session, a lawyer from the Attorney General's office insisted there had been no preferential treatment for Morse.

Dressed in solid yellow jailhouse clothes, Morse was quiet for most of the hearing, responding to Flanagan's questions with "yes, sir," and "no, sir." His father, Brian Morse, sat in the nearly empty courtroom throughout the hearing. He walked over to his son at the end of the hearing and gave him a light pat on the shoulder before the 23-year-old was led out of the courtroom, his hands shackled to his waist.

Even though Morse was sentenced to six months in jail, with credit for time already served, he could be out from behind bars by the end of this month. He's been in jail since September. Once he's released from jail, Morse will be taken to a drug and alcohol treatment facility in San Francisco, operated by The Salvation Army.

Flanagan warned Morse during the hearing that although he will have a large "cheering section" to help him complete the treatment program, he'll face serious consequences -- or even prison time -- if he drops out. "(The) ramifications, should you fail, could be much more than six months," Flanagan said.

McKechnie said the plea agreement was in his client's best interest, mainly because he would have faced several years in prison, had the case gone to trial. McKechnie also said it wouldn't be easy to find 12 jurors who aren't familiar with the defendant's family name. "It's my gut feeling that he couldn't have gotten a fair trial here," McKechnie said.

When asked whether Morse received any special treatment because of his family connections, Deputy Attorney General David Lowe replied, "Not a chance. We don't have any ties (to the D.A.'s office). We don't have any connections."

Morse was arrested by Merced police after he was accused of slashing a 28-year-old man in the arm with a knife in the parking lot of Save Mart.

Police responded to the scene after they received a call that a man wearing a toga had stabbed the victim, leaving the area in a silver SUV-type vehicle.

The victim, who was sitting in the parking lot when police arrived, had two 1-inch-deep slices in his left arm, police said. The victim reported that the stabbing happened after the suspect had verbally insulted his wife and circled the couple in his car, eventually coming to a stop.

The victim then approached the suspect, who was sitting in his car, and asked him, "What's up?" The man in the SUV, according to the victim, then slashed him with the knife. After being cut, the victim said, he punched the man in the mouth. The suspect then left the scene.

Morse was later identified as the suspect after the victim picked him out of a photo lineup. He was found at a toga party in the 3000 block of Park Avenue and taken into custody, police said.

The victim, who received 30 stitches in his arm to close both wounds, also reported that there was a passenger seated in the car with Morse. Police said that person wasn't involved in the altercation. They also reported finding a 37-inch-long knife with a 25-inch blade, hidden in bushes at the Park Avenue location.

Before the incident at Save Mart, Morse was arrested Sept. 7 for driving under the influence. His blood alcohol level was 0.13, according to Lowe. The state legal limit is 0.08. Morse was also arrested on June 22 last year for possessing a concealed handgun in his car.

As a part of his sentence, Morse will also have to pay a $1,450 fine, complete a program for DUI offenders and be placed on three years felony probation. A charge of causing great bodily injury was dropped against Morse as part of the plea agreement.

His crime will also result in one strike on his record.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.