Ethan Morse trial ends, Merced County on hook to pay $526K for falsely arresting DA's son

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.

Nearly four years after Ethan Morse was falsely arrested on a murder charge, his federal civil rights trial ended Tuesday with a Merced County Sheriff's lieutenant and a detective denying any wrongdoing, but costing county taxpayers $526,649.

Before getting the final bill, Lt. Charles "Chuck" Hale and detective Erick Macias showed a little bravado Tuesday, telling jurors they stood by their investigation and Ethan Morse was not innocent — even though days before the jury had already ruled Hale and Macias had engaged in judicial deception.

Their lack of remorse stunned Morse's lawyers, Jayme Walker and J. Gary Gwilliam, who said they proved Hale and Macias had omitted key evidence in a warrant affidavit that would have exonerated Morse, and manipulated evidence to get a judge to sign it.

After deliberating a few hours, the jury ordered Hale to pay $17,855 in punitive damages to Morse, the son of Merced County District Attorny Larry Morse II. Jurors also ordered Macias to pay $10,494 for what Ethan Morse's lawyers called reprehensible conduct.

The total punitive award of $28,349 was in addition to $498,300 that the jury last Friday ordered Merced County to pay Morse for false arrest.

The amount is a far cry from the $10 million Morse had been seeking. After Tuesday's hearing, one of Morse's lawyers said he was disappointed in the jury's low figure in damages, but said Morse and his parents were pleased with the outcome. "Our goal was to vindicate Ethan Morse and we did that," Gwilliam said.

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, he and his legal team claimed victory,

After being released, 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. Morse also accused Detective Jose Sam Sanchez of inflicting emotional distress, but the jury rejected that claim, clearing Sanchez of any wrongdoing.

Lawyers for Hale, Sanchez and Macias, however, insisted detectives had sufficient evidence and probable cause to arrest Morse.

Friday's verdict came after eight days of testimony over three weeks from 18 witnesses. Jurors reached Tuesday's decision after a few hours of deliberations.

In closing arguments, Walker asked the jury to send a message through a big punitive award so Hale and Macias and other law enforcement officials would not be inclined to corrupt the criminal justice system. Lawyers for Hale and Macias, however, said the two defendants had been punished enough with the jury verdict that found them engaging in judicial deception.

Before reaching a decision, jurors learned that Hale made close to $200,000 in salary and benefits, but was only taking home $4,400 a month in pay. He and his wife and two children lived in a rented home and he owed $30,000 in student loans. He also owed the IRS $9,000.

But Hale also bought a new pickup this year and owns an boat that he purchased for $8,000 around the time Morse was arrested. Hale testified he wanted to send his children to college, but had only $1,500 saved in the bank.

Macias also is married with two children, but is buying his house. He makes about $70,000 a year, but owes more than $90,000 on his home. He said he owns 2007 pickup with 140,000 miles, but is paying for his wife's 2011 Honda Accord, which has 90,000 miles. He said he has only $2,000 in the bank.

Gwilliam said Hale's and Macias' total net worth likely contributed to the low punitive award.

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.

After the case went cold for 16 months, Morse, on the advice of his father, voluntarily talked to sheriff's detectives on July 20, 2014, about taking Logan-Tellez to the party. In his interview with detectives, Morse said Logan-Tellez did not fire a gun from the SUV and did not kill Hernandez-Canela.

Several passengers in Morse's SUV later gave the same account, but three of them were pressured into changing their stories, Walker and Gwilliam told the jury.

Five days after Morse talked to detectives, he was arrested outside his home.

Because of his father's obvious conflict, prosecutor Barton Bowers of the state Attorney General's Office took over the case and filed a murder charge against Ethan Morse.

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.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts