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 .
Read previous post on Dawgs Blog about Stanislaus DA Birgit Fladager comments about factually innocent defendants here:
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.”
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