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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.

Members of the Ruiz family suggested an appropriate sentence would be about 7? years in prison. Sonoma resident Gary Ruiz, Alex?s uncle, said his family was more focused on encouraging Morse to ?pick up Alex?s baton? in living a productive life after prison.

William Bettinelli of Santa Rosa, a retired Sonoma County judge, said it is impossible to second-guess a specific sentence, noting that each case comes with its own set of unique facts.

?Every case is different and the facts drive the conclusion,? he said. ?That?s the hardest thing to explain. That?s the toughest part of being a judge.?

A judge needs to balance several interests in crafting an appropriate sentence, he said, including punishment, the deterrent effect for the community and the defendant, the protection of society and the defendant?s potential rehabilitation.

Within the past decade, Sonoma County judges have issued a broad range of sentences in drunken driving fatalities.

In several cases, the defendants received sentences of probation only. Others were sentenced to a year or less in county jail in addition to probation.

In some cases, particularly those where the defendants had prior DUIs or fled the scene, they were sentenced to as many as nine years in prison.

Andrian said he expected a sentence of between five and seven years, given other similar sentences handed down in Sonoma County courts.

Press Democrat research covering almost a decade found no cases with similar facts that resulted in sentences as severe as Morse?s.

In 2003, Adan Salinas Reyes, 26, of Petaluma received a 10-year term, the maximum, in the DUI death of 18-year-old Jennifer Boland on Highway 101. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, a more serious charge than Morse faced. Morse was charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.

In 2001, Amy Mason, 36, received two years in jail for killing two people when she drove on the wrong side of River Road without headlights and crashed into an oncoming car. Judge Gayle Guynup was called too lenient by the victims? families, who sought a prison sentence and said leniency sends the wrong message to the community about drinking and driving.

In 2002, Mike Ledson, 32, was sentenced to a year in jail for killing his fianc? when he was high and drunk during a crash. Judge Elaine Rushing noted the support for Ledson by the victim?s family when she bucked the recommendation of the probation department and District Attorney?s Office, which sought a prison term.

Earlier this year, Chelsea Tedeschi, 22, another Andrian client, was sentenced by Judge Rene Chouteau to six years in prison for a fatal DUI crash she caused. But that came only after she violated probation after serving half of only a nine-month jail term she was originally given in the death of Jane Beverly Todd on Highway 12 near Oakmont.

In 2007, Rolf Kissmann, 38, was sentenced by Judge Dean Beaupre to seven years and eight months in prison for a 2005 drunken driving crash that killed two women and severely injured a man. He also had hit-and-run charges but had no prior record.

Also that year, Peter Lloyd Gilliam, 51, was sent away for four years and four months for a DUI crash that killed a Vacaville woman and injured her husband. Gilliam pleaded no contest to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter and DUI and was sentenced by Judge Elliot Daum to 16 months on the DUI charge with a three-year enhancement for the injuries caused.

In Morse?s case, the pre-sentencing report prepared by the probation department for Gnoss? consideration noted that Morse may be a good candidate for rehabilitation given his ?good familial upbringing.?

?It can be argued that he is a young man, who despite this single horrific act born of youthful ignorance, can be rehabilitated and still serve society in a productive manner,? the report states. ?However, the fact remains the defendant was intoxicated before he left to buy more alcohol that fateful night and chose to drive.

?It is obvious the defendant was well aware of the dangers of driving while under the influence and therefore made the educated, albeit unwise and dangerous, decision to do so that night.?

The probation department recommended 12 years and 4 months in prison, less than the 15-year maximum sentence.

Bettinelli said he is concerned whether the lengthy sentence took into account how Morse, whose father is an elected prosecutor, will be treated in prison and how and where he will be housed.

?With a young man, you would look to the potential for rehabilitation. I assume that the judge did,? he said. ?Obviously, I think he emphasized the punishment and deterrent functions substantially here. He?s not going to get rehabilitated in prison.?

Staff Writer Bob Norberg and News Researcher Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 568-5312 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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