Jury selection is to begin today in the murder trial of a North Hollywood makeup artist in which the defense says it will claim that two Los Angeles police bomb experts caused their own deaths in trying to dismantle a bomb found in the defendant's garage.
The pipe bomb, one of two that police found in the home of Donald Lee Morse, exploded with what one investigator described as "a terrific force," instantly killing the two officers.
The 39-year-old Morse is charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possessing explosives in the Feb. 8, 1986, deaths of Detective Arleigh McCree, 46, then commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's bomb squad, and Officer Ronald Ball, 43.
If convicted in the San Fernando Superior Court case, Morse, a film and television makeup artist, could be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris said Superior Court Judge John H. Major "appears to have sided with me" in ruling on pretrial motions about the admissibility of evidence of "alleged negligence by the victims."
Defense attorney Bernard J. Rosen agreed that Major has indicated he will not allow such evidence to be introduced.
"But this is sort of a unique case for which there aren't any good precedents," Rosen said. "I expect that we won't know the judge's final ruling until the witnesses are on the stand and I ask my questions and Norris makes his objections."
Los Angeles police went to Morse's home to search for a pistol that had been used four days earlier to shoot an official of the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Union Local 706, of which Morse was a member.
The gun was not found, and Morse was not charged in the shooting.
While conducting the search, officers found two bombs and summoned the police demolition squad.
McCree and Ball dismantled one bomb but were killed when they set off the second while trying to defuse it.
At Morse's preliminary hearing in September, 1986, police testified that the defendant denied any knowledge of the bombs when they were discovered. Prosecutors argued that as a result, Morse contributed to the officers' deaths by withholding information that could have helped the officers defuse the bombs.
Norris contends that the prosecution need not show that Morse intended to kill the officers to obtain a murder conviction, only that he possessed an illegal lethal weapon that had no use other than to kill.
At the hearing, police experts said Morse's fingerprints were found on several items surrounding the bombs and that explosive powder, batteries, tape, electrical wires and other items used to manufacture bombs were in the garage.
Also, an estranged in-law testified that Morse had threatened to have him blown up in his car shortly before the bombs were found.
Since the preliminary hearing, the case has been continued repeatedly, first at the behest of defense attorney Pierpont M. Laidley, who said he needed time to interview expert witnesses.
Major removed Laidley from the case 14 months ago when the attorney asked for more money to prepare the defense.
Since then, Morse's trial has been postponed, first while Rosen studied the case and more recently because he became involved in another murder trial.
Morse has been in County Jail without bail since the officers were killed.