The judge who last week sent the 18-year-old son of the Merced County District Attorney to prison on a 12-year, 4-month sentence called it an ?extremely difficult? decision before handing down the term that shocked family and friends in the Sonoma County courtroom.
Judge Ken Gnoss leveled one of the harshest sentences of the past decade for a fatal DUI, ordering Dylan Morse behind bars for at least 10 years for killing one man and leaving his best friend in a coma.
The sentence followed the recommendation of the county probation department, which said that Morse was ?well aware? of the dangers of driving while intoxicated. But it drew condemnation from even some of the families of the victims of the crash.
?This was grossly unfair and unjust,? Chris Andrian, Morse?s attorney, said.
Andrian said Gnoss showed no compassion for the teenage driver who had no prior record, was ?appropriately remorseful? and was completing alcohol treatment.
Morse entered guilty pleas to three felonies and three misdemeanors in connection with the Valentine?s Day collision that took the life of Berkeley art student and musician Alex Ruiz, 22, left Ryne Spitzer, 19, with potential lifelong disabilities and injured Ruiz?s passenger, Vanessa King, 25.
?We are trying to intervene on the excessive confinement thrown at Dylan Morse,? Ryne Spitzer?s father, Mark Spitzer, wrote on a blog he is keeping on his son?s medical progress.
?This is not to lessen the devastating effects of drinking and driving, but we are also talking about an 18-year-old young man who needs a chance after any incarceration to still salvage a productive and influential life. We will try to help.?
Gnoss acknowledged before sentencing that the decision weighed heavily on him, noting that his children are near in age to Morse, Spitzer and Ruiz.
He said if he were to put himself in the position of Morse?s family, he would seek leniency. If his children were the victims, he?d be calling for the maximum punishment.
?This has been an extremely difficult sentencing decision for this court,? he said.
But, he said, ultimately Morse knew his behavior was illegal and dangerous, having participated in his high school?s ?Every 15 Minutes? anti-drunken driving presentation and having driven Spitzer ? who had his own DUI arrest several months prior ? to a court-mandated class the day before the fatal crash.
Morse?s blood-alcohol level was 0.15 percent, almost twice the legal limit for a driver of legal drinking age, when he ran a red light about 2:30 a.m. at Highway 116 and Stony Point Road, smashing into Ruiz?s car.
Lynn Darst of Windsor, an advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving whose daughter-in-law was killed by a drunken driver in 2005, agrees with the severity of the sentence, despite the criticism that it was harsh.
?I also believe it was too harsh to have Alexander Ruiz lose his life as a result of two young men in a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. It was a harsh sentence for the Ruiz family,? Darst said.
She said she believes it is a sign the public is tired of drunken driving and wants people to be held accountable.
?Dylan Morse will be able to go on with his life at some point, and hopefully he will turn it around. Alexander Ruiz will not have that opportunity,? she said.