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Former Teacher's Slaying Case Ends in Mistrial

Crime: A jury can't agree whether Mark Morales gunned down a party crasher 13 years ago in Mission Viejo while a college student.

July 13, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trial of a former high school math teacher charged with gunning down a party crasher 13 years ago while a college student in Mission Viejo ended Friday with a jury deadlock.

After five days of deliberation, Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel announced a mistrial in the case of Mark Glen Morales.

A 35-year-old former teacher at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, Morales stood accused of fatally shooting Steven Merritt, 21, after the two men clashed at a party.

Jurors announced Friday afternoon that they were divided 10-2 in favor of a guilty verdict. The case was then scheduled for a new trial Oct. 7, although the Orange County district attorney's office said it would review the case again before deciding whether to retry it.

"We're disappointed the jury didn't reach a unanimous verdict,'' said Assistant Dist. Atty. Lewis Rosenblum. "We're going to take a hard look at this case and hopefully bring Mr. Morales to justice in the near future.''

Morales, who had left the U.S. for a time after Merritt's death, was arrested two years ago when enterprising detectives found new evidence connecting him to the crime. During his trial in Santa Ana, Morales' parents were handcuffed and jailed for contempt of court when they refused to testify against him. The parents were released at the conclusion of testimony, although the defendant himself remained in custody.

"It's certainly not pleasant to be in custody, but Mr. Morales is holding up well," defense attorney Donald Re said. "He's always maintained his innocence and we're just going to keep fighting."

Merritt was found shot to death Feb. 26, 1989, after attending a party for the International Club at Saddleback College.

The party was thrown by the defendant at a Mission Viejo home that belonged to his parents, in an upscale neighborhood. More than 100 friends of Morales attended, with most of the revelers dancing to salsa music and dressed in shirts and ties.

Merritt and a group of friends crashed the party late that night and immediately stood out from the crowd. Coming straight from watching a televised boxing match, the half-dozen friends wore jeans and T-shirts, according to reports.

The evening quickly turned sour when one of Merritt's friends made fun of the music Morales was playing and asked that rock music be played instead.

The uninvited group left after an hour except for Merritt, who was flirting with a friend of Morales', authorities said.

Prosecutors alleged that Morales had grown increasingly disturbed over the behavior of the party crashers and soon turned violent. When Merritt eventually left the party about 3 a.m., he walked to a nearby intersection, where a friend had agreed to pick him up.

Morales allegedly got into a black car and began following Merritt with the lights turned off. As they reached Cordova Park, Morales allegedly confronted Merritt and somehow got him into his car. The two allegedly drove about a mile, got out and scuffled. Merritt was shot and killed.

Morales, who returned to the U.S. roughly six years ago, had earned a partial teaching credential and taught math to ninth-graders at Belmont High. He got married three months before his arrest.

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