Nearly four years after Ethan Morse was jailed 114 days for a murder he didn't commit, a federal civil rights jury on Friday awarded him $498,300 in damages, ruling Merced County sheriff's detectives had tricked a judge into signing a warrant to arrest Morse in July 2014.
Morse, 21, left the courtroom with a big smile . He and his mother Cindy Morse deferred questions to his attorneys, Jayme Walker and J. Garry Gwilliam.
"Ethan Morse has been vindicated," Gwilliam said, noting that the jury of six men and two women voted unanimously to find that Lt. Charles "Chuck" Hale and Detective Erick Macias had committed judicial deception to get a warrant to falsely arrest Morse.
Because jurors found true the judicial deception claim, jurors will return Tuesday to determine whether Hale and Macias should pay Morse punitive damages. And once the trial is over, Merced County could be on the hook to pay Morse's lawyers hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
After he was freed from jail, Morse sued Hale and Macias for violating his civil rights by maliciously or recklessly lying to a judge to get a warrant for his arrest. He 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 .
Morse also accused Detective Jose Sam Sanchez of inflicting emotional distress, but the jury rejected that claim, clearing Sanchez of any wrongdoing.
During the trial, Walker and Gwilliam said the evidence proved that Hall, Macias and Sanchez coerced witnesses, omitted key evidence in a warrant affidavit that would have exonerated Morse, and manipulating evidence to get a judge to sign it.
But lawyers for Hale, the county and the two detectives insisted they had sufficient evidence and probable cause to arrest the son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II.
The verdict came after eight day of testimony over three weeks from 18 witnesses.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, Walker told the jury that trial shined a bad light on law enforcement because officers take an oath be fair to everyone they encounter. "We give them the power to arrest and to use lethal force," Walker said. "When they abuse that power, they impact everyone's basic human rights."
She and Gwilliam asked the jury to award Morse up to $10 million, arguing that during his time in jail, Morse constantly worried that a inmate might harm or kill him. He also missed his grandfather's funeral and first semester of college, causing his life to go into a tailspin, Gwilliam said.
To make matters worse, Gwilliam said, Morse's reputation was ruined because critics on social media have have labeled him a murderer in a gang slaying. Morse suffers from anxiety and depression and "will never have peace of mind," Gwilliam said.
Attorney Dana Fox, who is representing Merced County and Hale, insisted that the detectives did nothing wrong. He said there was no evidence, including from Larry Morse, that Hale or the two detectives had targeted Ethan Morse. He also said no one testified that Hall and the two detectives had said anything malicious and reckless in arresting Morse. But if jury found the defendants liable, Fox said a more reasonable amount to award Morse would be $219,616.
But it was Hale's and Macias' actions that got them in trouble, Walker said.
In closing arguments, 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. Bernabed 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 there was 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 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, 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. He also said 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.