Merced DA’s son files lawsuit claiming wrongful prosecution in 2013 homicide

A lawsuit filed Thursday claims Merced County sheriff’s detectives lied about evidence, threatened key witnesses and ignored facts showing that Ethan B. Morse was innocent of any crimes in connection with the 2013 slaying of a gang member.

Detectives in the case are also accused of withholding and deliberately failing to act on information pointing to other suspects in the case, according to the suit filed in Merced Superior Court.

Morse, the son of District Attorney Larry Morse II, claims civil rights violations, including false arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the complaint says. Larry Morse II declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The suit seeks unspecified financial damages, including attorney’s fees, and punitive damages. An attorney representing Morse from the law firm of Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer, said the damages “could easily go into the seven-figure range.”

Attorneys representing Morse say sheriff’s investigators continue to ignore evidence that Morse and his family believe points to the real killer.

The suit names as defendants Detective Eric Macias, Detective Sam Sanchez, Detective-Sgt. Chuck Hale and the Merced County Sheriff’s Office.

Hale and Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke declined to comment on the suit on Thursday.

Morse, 19, was arrested in July 2014 and charged with acting as the getaway driver in an alleged drive-by shooting that claimed the life of 18-year-old Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, who was gunned down at a house party on March 30, 2013, on Westside Boulevard in Atwater.

I tried to come forward and tell the Merced Sheriff’s Department that they had arrested the wrong person. I paid for it by being prosecuted myself for a crime I didn’t commit.

Ethan Morse

Deputies accused co-defendant Jacob Logan-Tellez of opening fire from Morse’s moving vehicle, killing Hernandez-Canela. Detectives said Morse knew Logan-Tellez was armed and had fired shots from the vehicle. Both defendants denied any shots were fired from Morse’s vehicle. Logan-Tellez said he was armed with a .22-caliber gun that night, but noted that the coroner’s report concluded Hernandez-Canela was shot with bullets from .38-caliber and .25-caliber firearms.

Morse spent more than four months in custody and was released in November 2014 following a four-day preliminary hearing that ended with Judge Ronald Hansen taking the unusual step of declaring that Morse and Logan-Tellez were factually innocent of any wrongdoing in Hernandez-Canela’s death.

Morse was charged in the homicide in July 2014 after Logan-Tellez was arrested. Morse said he went to the Sheriff’s Office to tell them he was with Logan-Tellez at the party and that Logan-Tellez never fired a gun on that night.

“I tried to come forward and tell the Merced Sheriff’s Department that they had arrested the wrong person,” Morse said Thursday in a prepared statement. “I paid for it by being prosecuted myself for a crime I didn’t commit.”

The suit claims key witnesses, who were with Morse and Logan-Tellez in the vehicle, initially said no shots were fired from the car and only changed their stories after they were “intimidated” and “threatened” with arrest.

The complaint also says that on Nov. 4, 2014, nearly a week before the preliminary hearing, Merced police Detective Paul Johnson came to Hale and the detectives with information naming two other people, described in the suit as “well known” gang members, as being responsible for killing Hernandez-Canela. The suit claims this information was also provided independently by another key witness in the case, but was ignored by investigators.

“No report of this information was made and (Morse) … believes that this information was withheld” by investigators from the Attorney’s General’s Office, the complaint says.

The case was prosecuted by the California Attorney General’s Office because Morse’s father is Merced County’s district attorney.

Jayme Walker, one of the attorneys representing Morse, said her client was “looking forward to shedding light on the wrongful actions of the Sheriff’s Department.”

“We’re also looking forward to the total exoneration in the court of public opinion for Ethan Morse,” Walker said in a telephone interview.

Gary Gwilliam, another attorney in the case, described the judge’s 2014 factual finding of innocence as “extremely rare.”

“The acts of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department were outrageous and we intend to aggressively pursue justice for this innocent man,” Gwilliam said in a prepared statement. “It further concerns Mr. Morse and his family that no efforts are being made to bring to justice the guilty.”

Warnke, in previous interviews, has stood by the investigators in the case. “I can say that our detectives followed every lead when they were given to us,” Warnke said in an interview in June. “They follow up on every lead promptly when they are brought to our attention.”

Morse said his time behind bars cost him a wrestling scholarship and prevented him from attending his grandfather’s funeral.

“I asked several times to take a polygraph test. I spent four months in jail,” Morse said. “Despite being totally exonerated, I’m still confronted by people who believe I committed a crime. Those responsible should be held accountable so that others don’t get caught in such a nightmare.”

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