Bomb-Blast Deaths : Officer Negligence in Dispute at Start of Murder Trial
The question of whether two Los Angeles police bomb experts caused their own deaths emerged as a matter of dispute Monday in the first day of the bomb-blast murder trial of a North Hollywood makeup artist.
The defendant, Donald Lee Morse, is charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possessing explosives in the officers’ deaths, which occurred when they tried to dismantle a bomb found in Morse’s garage.
Killed in the powerful explosion on Feb. 8, 1986, were Detective Arleigh McCree, 46, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department’s bomb squad, and Officer Ronald Ball, 43.
If convicted in the San Fernando Superior Court case, the 39-year-old Morse, a film and television makeup specialist, could be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Issue of Negligence
Without the jury present, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris on Monday asked Judge John H. Major to prevent Morse’s attorney from suggesting during examination of witnesses that negligence on the part of the officers contributed to their deaths.
Defense attorney Bernard J. Rosen insisted that he was “not saying there was anything negligent that caused the deaths” but added that he planned to introduce evidence that “other means could have been used” to handle the bomb.
He noted that some experts transport bombs elsewhere, then explode them, and that others wear protective clothing when working on bombs. Earlier testimony had indicated that McCree and Ball did not wear special clothing.
Norris contended that although Rosen was not using the word “negligence” he was saying the same thing in different words.
Major reiterated a 1988 ruling that negligence was not a defense, but said he would rule on evidence as it is presented.
Norris contends that the prosecution need not show that Morse intended to kill the officers, only that he possessed an illegal deadly weapon that had no use other than to kill.
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 searching the house, officers found two pipe bombs and summoned McCree and Ball. The two dismantled one bomb but were killed when trying to take apart the second.
Police on Monday testified that Morse denied any knowledge of the bombs when they were discovered and said that he had allowed friends to store things in his garage.
In opening arguments, Norris told jurors that he would introduce evidence that 10 days before the blast, Morse had threatened his estranged brother-in-law, saying that he “was going to blow him up in his car.”
Morse has been in County Jail without bail since the officers were killed.