Merced DA’s son seeks damages from county for arrest, prosecution

Ethan Morse
Ethan Morse

Merced sheriff’s detectives “suppressed or egregiously failed” to act on information that could have cleared Ethan B. Morse of any wrongdoing in a 2013 triple homicide case, according to a claim for damages filed with Merced County.

“The arrest and prosecution (of Morse) was malicious and politically motivated,” the claim states.

Morse, 19, is seeking unspecified damages from the county for the more than four months he spent in jail in connection with the slaying of 18-year-old Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, who was fatally shot March 30, 2013, outside a large house party on Westside Boulevard, outside Atwater.

Morse, son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, has formally claimed his civil rights were violated when he was arrested July 25 and charged with murder. He was accused of acting as the getaway driver in Hernandez-Canela’s death, but was declared factually innocent by Judge Ronald W. Hansen following a preliminary hearing in November.

According to a copy of the claim obtained by the Sun-Star, Morse says the deputies who investigated the case received information from a Merced police detective in November 2014 regarding a witness who said “another person had confessed to … his responsibility for the killing of Bernabed Hernandez-Canela.”

“In fact, the Sheriff’s Department suppressed or egregiously failed” to disclose an interview with the person who allegedly confessed to the crime. That interview, the claim states, was conducted before Morse and his co-defendant, Jacob Tellez, were arrested in July 2014.

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said he could not comment on any potential lawsuits, but strongly suggested the claims made by the younger Morse were false.

“I can say that our detectives followed every lead when they were given to us,” Warnke said. “They follow up on every lead promptly when they are brought to our attention.”

The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday formally rejected the claim for damages, setting the stage for a potential lawsuit between the county and the family of its top prosecutor.

Professor Stephen R. Routh, who chairs the political science department at California State University, Stanislaus, said government bodies typically reject such claims automatically.

“The next step is to take it to court, but the vast majority of these (lawsuits) settle out of court without going to trial,” Routh explained.

Both Morse and his father referred questions to attorney Gary Gwilliam, who represents the younger Morse in the potential lawsuit. Gwilliam confirmed Morse will likely sue the county in the coming weeks or months.

“The rejection was expected and we have one year to (file suit), but certainly we will not be taking that long to make a decision,” Gwilliam said. “We are researching the case, and there’s some very interesting investigation going on right now, but we will be taking action.”

Gwilliam declined to discuss specifics of the claim or the coming lawsuit.

During the November preliminary hearing, the judge said the evidence didn’t support the charges. In his ruling, Hansen said evidence in the case demonstrated that Morse was factually innocent of the charges.

Tellez, the man accused of shooting Hernandez-Canela, was also declared innocent the same day as Morse.

Morse maintained he didn’t know anything about the homicide but said he and Tellez were together the night of the shooting and that Tellez never fired a weapon.

Morse’s arrest record in the case was formally sealed and destroyed in March.

Two other teenagers also were killed the night Hernandez-Canela died at the same party. Hernandez-Canela was shot and killed in front of the home, while Samantha Parreira, 16, and Matthew Fisher, 19, were shot in the backyard.

Two men, Jose L. Botello and Jose M. Carballido, have been charged with murder in the deaths of Fisher and Parreira. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty. They are scheduled to appear in court Friday for a preliminary hearing, according to court records.

Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482

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