Bid to pull Merced DA off case tossed

MERCED — A judge this week denied a push from a defense attorney to disqualify the Merced County district attorney's office from prosecuting a fatal crash on the grounds the case resembled one that involved District Attorney Larry Morse's son.

Atwater resident Khushdeep Gill was suspected of driving drunk when he slammed head-on into a car driven by 48-year-old Sandra Isbell on Feb. 11, killing her. The California Highway Patrol reported Gill was driving south in the northbound lane of Highway 99 near Delhi.

Merced County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen on Wednesday denied a motion filed by Gill's attorney, John Garcia, that sought to strike the district attorney's office from prosecuting the case and requested that the office of the attorney general be appointed to that role.

Dylan Morse, son of the district attorney, is serving a three-year four-month prison sentence for a Feb. 14, 2009, DUI crash that killed one man and injured two people in Sonoma County.

In the motion, Garcia said pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving would affect how the district attorney's office handles DUI or vehicular manslaughter cases.

He referenced statements made by MADD's acting state executive director, Brenda Frachiseur, who said in February that she hoped Larry Morse would pursue maximum sentences in DUI or vehicular manslaughter cases, regardless of his experience with his son.

To placate MADD, Garcia argued, the district attorney's office is taking a more aggressive stance against those accused of drunken driving than it would otherwise.

"This aggressive stance is fueled by and directly attributed to the Dylan Morse case. To allow Larry Morse and his office to prosecute Khushdeep Gill would be a travesty," Garcia declared.

Larry Morse said in February that he had removed himself from involvement in DUI or vehicular manslaughter cases in which the facts are similar to his son's case.

Even so, Garcia argued, that wouldn't eliminate the conflict of interest in similar DUI or vehicular manslaughter cases.

"A chilling effect at performing one's duties impartially affects not only the department head, but everyone and everything within his department's control," Garcia said in his motion.

Contacted by telephone Wednesday, Larry Morse said he wasn't familiar with Garcia's motion and declined comment.

Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum, the prosecutor in Gill's case, opposed Garcia's motion, saying he's reported only to his supervisor, Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini.

"Larry Morse has had no contact with me regarding this case," Slocum told Judge Hansen, adding that he has treated Gill's case no differently from any other vehicular manslaughter case he'd handle.

Galen Farris, a deputy attorney general with the Office of the Attorney General, appeared during Wednesday's hearing, saying his office also opposed Garcia's motion. Farris told Hansen there's no evidence Slocum or any other deputy district attorney with the Merced County district attorney's office would handle Gill's case unfairly.