Plaintiff says sheriff's deputies investigating triple murder badgered witnesses and made misrepresentations and material omissions in arrest warrant and intentionally misled a judge into signing the warrant.
- Case Name: Ethan Morse v. County of Merced, Charles Hale, Erick Macias, and Jose Sam Sanchez
- Court and Case Number: United States District Court, Eastern District / 1:2016cv00142
- Date of Verdict or Judgment: Tuesday, May 08, 2018
- Type of Case: False Arrest/Imprisonment, Malicious Prosecution
- Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Dale A. Drozd
Plaintiffs: Ethan Morse, 18.
Defendants: County of MercedCharles HaleErick MaciasJose Sam Sanchez
- Type of Result: Jury Verdict
- Gross Verdict or Award: $526,649
Award as to each Defendant:
On May 4, the jury awarded Morse $498,300 against the county. The jury found that defendants Hale and Macias deliberately and recklessly made false statements and omissions in the warrant for Ethan Morse’s arrest and that in doing so they acted with malice, oppression or in reckless disregard for the truth. They also found that Hale and Macias caused Morse to be wrongfully arrested.
On May 8, the jury awarded punitive damages. The jury ordered Hale to pay $17,855 in punitive damages to Morse and Macias to pay $10,494 for reprehensible conduct.
- Trial or Arbitration Time: 3 weeks, 1 day.
- Jury Deliberation Time: 2 days and then 2 hours for punitive damages.
- Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Plaintiff filing a motion for attorneys’ fees.
Attorney for the Plaintiff:
Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer by Jayme L. Walker and J. Gary Gwilliam, Oakland.
Attorney for the Defendant:
Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith by Dana A. Fox and Matthew P. Harrison, Los Angeles. (For Charles Hale, County of Merced and Jose Sam Sanchez.)
Carpenter, Rothans & Dumont by Mark D. Rutter and Danielle C. Foster, Los Angeles. (For Erick Macias.)
Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):
Paul Berg, Ph.D., emotional distress, Oakland.
Defendant's Medical Expert(s):
Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):
Roger Clark, police practices, San Francisco.
James Hammer, prosecutorial practices, San Diego.
Defendant's Technical Expert(s):
John Tefft, police practices, San Diego.
Facts and Background
Facts and Background:
On July 25, 2014, plaintiff Ethan Morse, 18, was arrested for murder in connection with a gang shooting that resulted in the deaths of three teenagers at a party on March 30, 2013. The victims, Samantha Parreira, 16; Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18; and Matthew Fisher, 19; were killed at the house party in the 9200 block of Westside Boulevard near Atwater the night before Easter Sunday.
Morse was 16 years old when 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 social media. He admitted that he knew that one of his passengers, Jacob Logan-Tellez, was affiliated with Norteno gang members and brought a .22-caliber revolver with him to the party. While sitting in the SUV outside the party the SUV occupants, heard gunfire. Parreira and Fisher were fatally shot in the backyard. Hernandez-Canela was killed out front. The shootings appeared to be related to a dispute between Sureno and Blood gang members. Fisher was a Blood gang member and Hernandez-Canela was a Sureno gang member.
As the gunfire erupted, 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. Shortly after the murders, Logan-Tellez was arrested and brought in for questioning. After cooperating with police, Tellez was 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 defendant Charles Hale was promoted to sergeant of the sheriff's department major crimes unit in July 2014. Hale testified that he told defendant Erick Macias on July 14, 2014, to dig into the unsolved triple homicide. Three days later, the sheriff's department held a press conference and 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.
Several eyewitnesses implicated Carballido and Botello, while Hale testified that Logan-Tellez's arrest was based solely on his 911 call and his videotaped interview with Pavelski. After plaintiff Ethan Morse came forward and told defendants that he knew Logan-Tellez was innocent, plaintiff contended that defendants set out to confirm their arrest and implicate plaintiff rather than investigate the real killers. In doing so, plaintiff contended that defendants ignored the physical evidence that made it impossible for Tellez to have killed Hernandez-Canela, including the autopsy report and ballistic testing showing that Hernandez-Canela 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. 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.
Plaintiff contended that detectives badgered, threatened with arrest, and coerced three of the six passengers in the car to say that it was possible a gun was fired from the car. Plaintiff contended that defendants misrepresented evidence to the state prosecutor that took over the case because plaintiff’s father was the District Attorney. Defendant Hale admitted on the witness stand that he never met with the state prosecutor, Barton Bowers, before Morse's arrest or to go over the evidence in detail with Bowers. Hale also conceded that Bowers only had the case for two days before Morse was arrested, but contended it was Bowers that called him and made the decision to arrest Morse. Bowers testified the decision to arrest Morse was made in a telephone call with the Sheriff’s Department, but that he did not recall being the one to make that decision.
Plaintiff contended that there were several misrepresentations and material omissions from the arrest warrant and that defendants intentionally misled a judge into signing the warrant.
Plaintiff further contended that defendants ignored evidence implicating someone else in the murder of Hernandez-Canela. Defendant Macias had interviewed a man who said he had information about the murder that detectives had already linked to Morse. Macias' interview with the informant happened in June 2014, however, Macias didn't write a report about his interview with the informant until after a judge declared Morse innocent. A confidential informant later told a Merced Police Department detective that this man had confessed to the murder of Hernandez-Canela. When the detective passed that information on to defendant Hale, Hale’s response was, “What, is Larry buying you lunch?” referring to plaintiff’s father, the District Attorney of Merced County.
Morse was later released from jail in November 2014, when Judge Ronald Hansen declared him factually innocent of the murder charge and freed him. 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.
Morse sued Merced County and Lt. Charles "Chuck" Hale, who authorized Morse's arrest, as well as sheriff's detectives Erick Macias and Jose Sam Sanchez. Plaintiff alleged claims of violation of Morse's civil rights by maliciously or recklessly lying to a judge to get a warrant for his arrest (judicial deception), false arrest, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Carballido and Botello were later convicted and sentenced to prison. Hernandez-Canela's killing remains unsolved. Plaintiff contended the murder remains unsolved because defendants continue to refuse to admit they were wrong about Logan-Tellez.
Defendants Hale, Macias and Sanchez all testified that they had probable cause to arrest Morse because he was the driver of the vehicle from which Logan-Tellez shot a firearm and killed Hernandez-Canela. Defense for the county and Macias contended that Logan-Tellez never turned over his gun to detectives and Morse was reluctant to turn over the contact information of his passengers. Defense contended that Morse and his passengers got together to concoct a similar story to tell law enforcement.
Defense contended that because Morse's father, Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse, declared an obvious conflict, Bowers of the State Attorney General's Office took over the case. Defense contended Bowers made the decision to arrest Morse after being briefed by Hale, and that Bowers, independently, made the decision to file a murder charge against Morse. They further contended that over several months, Bowers reviewed the evidence in preparation for Morse's preliminary hearing. During that time, Bowers continued to prosecute the case and never voiced any criticism of the evidence or of the detectives.
Injuries and Other Damages
Morse spent nearly 114 days at Mariposa County Jail. Morse testified that he was getting ready to head to a Baptist college in Arkansas on a wrestling scholarship before he was arrested in July, 2014. He missed his first semester of college and his grandfather's funeral. While in jail, Morse testified, his grandfather had written him letters. He testified he was always on high alert, worried that he might be raped or assaulted. At one point, Morse’s cell mate was a gang member. When the judge declared him innocent, and ordered Morse's release from jail, Morse was happy, but in a state of shock. He testified he thought people would find out he was innocent and he could return to his life before his arrest. However, on social media Morse was called a murderer and claimed his father pulled strings to get him off.
Morse attended one semester at the college in Arkansas, but he said acquaintances there learned of his link to the triple murder and ostracized him. He then attended Sacramento City College for one semester in the fall of 2015, but his dream of being a college wrestler ended when he hurt his back.
In late 2015, he returned to Merced. In May 2016, at the age of 19, he became a father to a daughter.
Morse testified he no longer goes to parties or hangs out with friends. He testified that strangers often stop him in stores and ask him if he did it. He said he's always worried that someone might avenge Hernandez-Canela's killing by "whacking me."
Morse claimed severe emotional distress and damages to his reputation from his wrongful imprisonment. He had not yet sought therapy, but Dr. Berg testified that he was coming around to the idea of therapy and should seek weekly therapy for at least two years with an experienced therapist for a cost of $14,300.
Demands and Offers
- Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: $1,800,000
- Defendant Final Offer before Trial: Low six figures.