Lawyer: Merced County, detectives owe Ethan Morse up to $10 million for false arrest

Ethan Morse poses for a portrait in Merced, Calif., Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Ethan Morse poses for a portrait in Merced, Calif., Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

Merced County owes Ethan Morse up to $10 million because sheriff's detectives showed a "reckless disregard for the truth" when they falsely arrested him in July 2014 on a murder charge, Morse's lawyers said Wednesday in closing arguments of his federal civil rights trial.

But attorney Dana Fox, who is representing Merced County and Lt. Charles "Chuck" Hale, said detectives had probable cause to believe Morse was the driver in a deadly drive-by shooting.

But if jurors believe detectives targeted Morse without sufficient evidence, Fox said a reasonable amount to award Morse would be $219,616.

After eight days of testimony, 18 witnesses and dozens of exhibits, a jury of six men and two women will begin deliberations after Judge Dale Drozd instructs them on the law.

In U.S. District Court in Fresno, Morse, 21, has accused Hale and detectives Erick Macias and Jose Sam Sanchez of violating his civil rights by maliciously or recklessly lying to a judge to get a warrant for his arrest.

Morse spent nearly four months in jail before Merced County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen in November 2014 declared him factually innocent of the murder charge and freed him from jail.

In closing arguments, Morse's attorneys, Jayme Walker and J. Gary Gwilliam, accused Hale, Macias and Sanchez of coercing witnesses, covering up evidence that would have exonerated Morse, and manipulating evidence to get a judge to sign a warrant for Morse's arrest.

To win the case, Morse's lawyers have to prove that Hale and the two detectives acted maliciously in arresting Morse or showed reckless disregard for the truth. That could be a high hurdle because Fox told the jury that no one, including Ethan's father, District Attorney Larry Morse II, testified in the trial that Hale or the two detectives intentionally targeted Ethan Morse.

In addition, no one testified that Hale and the detectives were malicious or reckless in arresting Ethan Morse, Fox said.

Walker, however, told the jury: "Malicious isn't just in words. Malicious is in your actions."

Walker contended that Hale and the two detectives got angry when Ethan Morse and his father "stood up to them" and told them that the July 17, 2014 arrest of gang member Jacob Logan-Tellez on a murder charge was wrong.

"They (detectives) were too proud to admit they were wrong," Walker said, especially since the sheriff's department had called a news conference to announce Logan-Tellez's arrest.

Instead of seeking the truth, the detectives were "driven by ambition, celebrity and publicity," Walker said. Most of all, Walker said, the detectives wanted Larry Morse "to eat his words."

Ethan Morse's troubles began on March 30, 2013, when, at age 16, he took his father's sports utility vehicle without permission and drove seven friends and acquaintances to the house party in Atwater that was advertised on Twitter. Before leaving his home, Morse testified in his trial that Logan-Tellez, showed him a .22-caliber revolver.

While sitting in the SUV outside the party, Morse testified gunfire erupted. Samantha Parreira, 16, and Matthew Fisher, 19, were fatally shot in the backyard. Hernandez-Canela, 18, was killed out front.

Morse and his passengers drove away unscathed. But shortly after the killings, Logan-Tellez accidentally called 911 on his cell phone. Detectives contended the 911 call had implicated Logan-Tellez in the killing of Hernandez-Canela.

Logan-Tellez was arrested, but was soon released after the then-lead detective, Dwayne Pavelski, said the 911 call was difficult to understand and insufficient evidence to book Logan-Tellez on murder charges.

The triple murder was a cold case when Hale was promoted to sergeant of the sheriff's major crimes unit in July 2014. Hale testified on Tuesday that he told Macias on July 14, 2017, to dig into the unsolved triple homicide. Three days later, the sheriff's department announced the arrest of Jose Carballido and Jose Botello in the killings of Parreira and Fisher, and the arrest of Logan-Tellez in the killing of Hernandez-Canela. (Carballido and Botello were later convicted and sentenced to prison. Hernandez-Canela's killing remains unsolved.)

Witnesses implicated Carballido and Botello; Hale testified that Logan-Tellez's arrest was based solely on his 911 call and his videotaped interview with Pavelski. Hale testified that sheriff's detectives obtained a warrant for Logan-Tellez's arrest without input from the District Attorney's Office.

In closing arguments on Wednesday, Walker pointed out that Hale and the two detectives ignored key evidence – Hernandez-Canela's autopsy report and ballistic testing showed he was shot with a .25-caliber firearm once in the head at close range and with a .38-caliber firearm in his chest several times.

Walker said Ethan Morse and his passengers had all told detectives that Logan-Tellez had a .22-caliber revolver and he did not fire it from Morse's SUV. But after being badgered and threatened with arrest, Walker said, three of the passengers said Logan-Tellez might have fired the gun.

Ethan Morse, however, remained steadfast. "Ethan did the right thing," Walker said. "He came forward to say an innocent man was in jail. He stood up for the truth."

But Fox said Logan-Tellez never turned over his gun to detectives. He also said the evidence showed that Ethan Morse was reluctant to turn over the names of his passengers. In addition, Fox said Morse and his passengers got together to concoct a similar story to tell law enforcement.

Morse was arrested outside his home on July 25, 2014. Because his father declared an obvious conflict, prosecutor Barton Bowers of the state Attorney General's Office took over the case.

Fox told the jury that Bowers made the decision to arrest Morse after being briefed by Hale. Bowers, independently, made the decision to file a murder charge against Morse. Then over several months, Bowers reviewed the evidence in preparation for Morse's preliminary hearing. During that time, Bowers never voiced any criticism of the evidence or of the detectives, Fox said.

But following a four-day preliminary hearing in November 2014, Judge Hansen released Morse from jail after making several factual findings, including that Logan-Tellez did not fire a gun from Morse's vehicle and that Logan-Tellez did not fire the weapon that killed Bernabed Hernandez-Canela in March 2013, court records say.

In his ruling, Hansen said he could not hear any admission of a shooting by Logan-Tellez in the accidental 911 call that Macias had relied on to get a warrant for Logan-Tellez's arrest. In addition, the judge also said the detectives used "improper interrogation techniques" on Morse's passengers, court records say.

In closing arguments on Wednesday, Gwilliam said Morse spent 114 days in jail, constantly worrying that an fellow inmate might harm or kill him. During his time in jail, Morse missed his grandfather's funeral and first semester of college, Gwilliam told the jury.

What happened to Morse will never be erased, Gwilliam said, because critics on social media have labeled him a murderer in a gang slaying. His arrest, Gwilliam said, also ruined Morse's college wrestling career and could impact him from getting a job.

Morse suffers from anxiety and depression and is always on his guard, the lawyer said. "He will never have peace of mind," Gwilliam told the jury.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts