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Back on the Job, Keeping a Killer in Prison

Crime: A prosecutor comes out of retirement to argue--again--against triple murderer's parole. He has dogged the inmate from trial to trial and hearing to hearing for 27 years.

September 12, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — For 27 years, confessed triple killer Joseph Bernard Morse has been trying to get out of prison.

And for 27 years, John A. Hewicker II, a former FBI agent, the son of a hard-nosed judge, and a career prosecutor known for relentless pursuit, has made sure Morse is not let loose.

Hewicker feels so strongly about the Morse case that today, at the age of 66 and a year into his retirement, he will be at Morse's parole hearing to warn that Morse will kill again if he is given the opportunity.

Even in a profession where the stakes are high and doggedness is a given, Hewicker's unwavering determination in the Morse case is exceptional.

"John isn't flamboyant or subtle," said Steven J. Casey, former special assistant to former Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller. "But he has an absolute command of the facts in this case. This murderer won't have a nanosecond to wiggle, excuse to rewrite history without John pouncing on him."

Hewicker retired last year after 35 years with the San Diego district attorney's office. At his farewell dinner, he pleaded with his colleagues to do him one favor: not to forget the Morse case, even though the murders took place in 1962 and 1964.

Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst decided to go Hewicker one better. He asked Hewicker to come out of retirement long enough to travel to the state prison in Vacaville and argue that Morse should remain behind bars.

"I don't think I've ever developed any feelings about Morse," Hewicker said. "It's an adversarial situation. I don't get emotionally involved. It's just a job that has to be done."

The Morse case is a casebook example of the volatility of criminal law in the 1960s and the frustration of prosecutors.

In 1962, Morse, a moody, hot-tempered 18-year-old with a history of juvenile offenses, confessed to bashing his mother with a softball-size rock and beating his invalid sister with the same rock and a baseball bat.

His only explanation was that his mother had bawled him out for drinking and going to Tijuana to buy drugs. His mother, 58, and sister, 12, who had cystic fibrosis, died within minutes in the family's Chula Vista home.

In 1964, Morse confessed to strangling a fellow inmate at the San Diego jail because he refused to give Morse a carton of cigarettes to pay off a gambling debt. He stuffed cloth in the inmate's nostrils and mouth to make sure he didn't revive.

Despite his confessions, Morse had five trials over eight years, with Hewicker handling the final two trials in 1969 and 1970. They were held in San Bernardino and Santa Ana because of news coverage in San Diego.

Morse was tried and convicted twice for the murders of his mother and sister, and twice for the murder of the inmate. He also received a retrial in the penalty phase of the inmate's murder.

Morse was the beneficiary of high court decisions meant to safeguard the rights of criminal defendants. One conviction was thrown out because Morse had not been read his rights (the Miranda decision was issued after the murders).

A jury's decision that he should die for the inmate's murder was thrown out because jurors had been warned that if he was not executed he might someday be paroled. The ban on California prosecutors making such comments to juries is known, to this day, as the Morse Rule.

Finally Morse was convicted in both cases, he was sentenced to die, and the convictions withstood appeal.

"Five times we tried him and three times he was given the death penalty," Hewicker said. "In one trial, the confession was thrown out and all I was left with was the bloody rock. But we showed that his fingertips were scarred . . . from the rock's jagged edges."

In 1972, when the California Supreme Court overturned Morse's death sentence and that of a slew of other killers, including Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson, Hewicker took on the responsibility of appearing before the parole board every time Morse had a chance for freedom.

In 1978, the Community Release Board, without giving Hewicker the chance to appear at a hearing, set a 1979 parole date for Morse.

Hewicker and other San Diego prosecutors were outraged and mounted a campaign to bring public pressure on the parole board. They noted that a psychiatrist had classified Morse as a sociopath. The board, faced with 500 letters of protest, backed down.

Each time he makes a presentation about the case, Hewicker emphasizes something different. On Thursday he plans to remind the parole board of the 1968 interview Morse gave to Truman Capote.

In an Esquire magazine story, Capote quoted Morse: "I'd probably kill again. Do it without any thought of the death penalty. Even though I've already spent five years in death row and know full well what it means."

In 1970, Hewicker subpoenaed Capote. The writer ignored the subpoena, was cited for contempt and spent two days in Orange County Jail before his New York doctor telephoned the judge and pleaded that Capote's health was delicate.

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