A Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detective has testified in numerous cases without jurors, judges or defense attorneys knowing he had previously received a lengthy suspension for dishonesty after he punched a suspect several times and lied about it, records and interviews show.
Daniel Morris’ discipline record of dishonesty is among the first wave of revelations this year under a new police transparency law and illustrates the type of important evidence about law enforcement misconduct that, until now, was long kept secret in California.
Morris has testified in five murder trials since becoming a homicide detective, but defense attorneys in those cases said they were never informed about his previous misconduct.
By law, prosecutors are required to tell criminal defendants about evidence that would damage the credibility of law enforcement witnesses. Failure to do so can result in convictions being overturned, even if prosecutors did not know about the information.
“It’s relevant for a jury to consider whether they believe the testimony being given by the officer,” said Jordan Yerian, a division chief at the county’s alternate public defender’s office, which represented defendants in some of the murder cases. “If you lied in the past, would you lie again? Are you stretching the truth now?”
A district attorney’s spokeswoman said none of the prosecutors in those trials knew about Morris’ discipline. After The Times shared a copy of the disciplinary letter, the office began sending notifications about the suspension to defense lawyers in more than 30 criminal cases, including some that resulted in convictions.
Yerian said his office is reviewing any cases Morris was involved in to determine whether to file appeals.
Morris has been a lead detective in some of the department’s highest-profile investigations, including the murder case against a man accused of carrying out a string of shootings in Malibu Creek State Park and the manslaughter case against a fellow deputy charged in an on-duty shooting. He did not respond to requests for comment. The Sheriff’s Department declined to answer questions about his misconduct or his role as a homicide detective, citing “personnel file privacy issues.”
Retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Rod Kusch, who oversaw the department’s detective division and previously served as captain of the homicide unit, defended Morris as a “skilled, humble homicide investigator.”
“Both his ethic and work product were above reproach while I was his supervisor,” he said.
Kusch declined to comment on Morris’ past misconduct. But he said a history of discipline for dishonesty wouldn’t necessarily prevent someone from effectively working as a homicide detective. The time since the punishment and whether there was subsequent discipline should also be weighed in determining a detective’s fitness for the role, he added.
“If it’s a situation where he could get up and explain his actions in a way that doesn’t necessarily harm his testimony, then I’d be fine leaving him” in the unit, Kusch said.
Still, the Sheriff’s Department included Morris on a secret list of about 300 deputies with histories of dishonesty and other misconduct that could damage their credibility in court, according to a 2014 version of the list reviewed by The Times. The list was at the center of a statewide legal battle over whether law enforcement agencies could share the names on such rosters with prosecutors.
Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled they could, paving the way for new disclosures to prosecutors about law enforcement witnesses like Morris.
Disclosure of an officer’s disciplinary records could jeopardize any pending and future cases that depend heavily on the officer’s testimony. Some previously convicted defendants are likely to argue they were denied the chance to cross-examine an officer about past misconduct.
“To the extent that there are agencies who have not been voluntarily disclosing this, there will be lots of new motions for new trial,” said Andrea Roth, a law professor at UC Berkeley.
Dishonesty about use of force
The events that led to Morris’ discipline began Oct. 10, 2003, when he and other deputies caught a man who had rammed a patrol car during a high-speed chase.
After the man, Fernando Galaz, was handcuffed, two sergeants separately asked Morris and other deputies whether they had used force. They said no, according to a district attorney’s memo.
When Galaz told Sheriff’s Department officials he was beaten after he surrendered, a sergeant warned the deputies, “You need to think about whatever you need to tell me and come back to me.”
Morris and his colleagues later admitted they had used force and said Galaz had been resisting arrest. Morris, an eight-year veteran, had punched him several times on his left side and lower back while other deputies also struck him, the district attorney’s memo said.
Prosecutors declined to charge Morris and three other deputies with assault, concluding that Galaz’s relatively minor injuries did not corroborate his allegation that they had kicked his face and stomped on his neck. Still, prosecutors noted that the deputies, including Morris, were not forthcoming about their actions.
“Unfortunately, because of the deputies’ lack of candidness, it is impossible to deduce exactly what happened,” a prosecutor wrote in the 2004 memo explaining her decision not to charge the deputies.
Greg Risling, a district attorney’s spokesman, declined to say whether Morris was ever added to the office’s own list of law enforcement officers whose alleged misconduct should be disclosed to defendants. He said that in general, the office takes “appropriate action” in notifying defendants of potential impeachment information.
The office destroyed its copy of the memo in 2009 per a five-year document retention policy in place at that time, Risling said. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey changed the policy to preserve such records soon after she was first elected in 2012.
“I understood then, just as I understand now, the importance of indefinitely retaining potentially exculpatory material,” Lacey said in an emailed statement. She declined to be interviewed.
After the criminal investigation of Morris and the other deputies, the Sheriff’s Department conducted a separate inquiry to determine whether discipline was warranted.
The results remained confidential under California’s strict police privacy laws. But last year, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1421, which requires departments to publicly disclose records of internal investigations into police shootings, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers. The law took effect Jan. 1.
The Times is part of a collaboration of 40 news organizations called the California Reporting Project that is gathering and analyzing records released under SB 1421.
Morris’ 2005 disciplinary letter, disclosed under the new law, shows the Sheriff’s Department concluded that he made false statements to his supervisors on the day of the car chase and was less than forthright during his interview for the internal investigation.
Morris was given a 30-day suspension — the department’s most severe discipline short of demotion or firing — but had to serve only 15 days unless he reoffended within a year, according to the letter.
Since then, he has been listed by the district attorney as a potential witness in nearly 180 criminal cases. It’s unclear how many times he testified.
Defense attorney Robert Conley said Morris’ testimony was crucial to convicting his client, Obed Estrada, in a 2010 murder trial.
Prosecutors alleged that Estrada and another gang member were responsible for the fatal shooting of a rival who had admitted spraying graffiti on their turf in Paramount.
Prosecution witnesses gave conflicting accounts about whether Estrada was the shooter or another gang member at the scene of the confrontation.
Testifying as a gang expert, Morris said he didn’t know the facts of the case against Estrada, but he insisted that gang members would know if one of their own was armed before they would confront a rival. In such a scenario, Morris testified, an unarmed gang member’s job would be to act as backup and make sure the armed member carried out the violence.
Estrada’s attorney argued Morris’ testimony was highly suggestive and unfairly implied that his client was involved in the shooting.
Jurors convicted Estrada of first-degree murder but did not find true the allegation that he used a firearm. He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
Conley told The Times that the prosecution never informed him about Morris’ history of dishonesty and that he believes it would have been important in determining the detective’s credibility. “If you are going to testify as a gang expert and you have bent the rules, the jury needs to know that,” he said.
The prosecutor on the case, Tamara E. Hall, is now an L.A. County Superior Court judge. She did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2013, Morris was assigned to the department’s homicide unit, where he has served as a lead detective on at least 10 murder investigations. He has yet to take the stand against the man accused of the shootings at Malibu Creek State Park or against Deputy Luke Liu, the first law enforcement officer in the county to be charged in an on-duty shooting in nearly 20 years.
Liu’s attorney, Michael D. Schwartz, said he hadn’t known about Morris’ past discipline until contacted by The Times but believed it wouldn’t play a significant role in the defense. Morris’ conversations with witnesses were recorded, he said, and none of the witnesses have indicated any reason to challenge the statements attributed to them.
Disclosure could have changed case
But Morris’ work was questioned in the case of a 2015 fatal shooting.
In a court filing, defense attorney Stephen Kahn said he received information that Morris had in some way suggested to witnesses which suspect to pick out during photo lineups. Kahn filed a motion asking the judge to examine Morris’ personnel records for any prior allegations of coercing witnesses, dishonesty or other acts of “moral turpitude.”
Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Department argued that the allegation lacked details and was spurious. The judge denied the motion, and Morris later testified at trial.
Kahn’s client, Demonte Thomas, was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Kahn said Morris’ history of discipline could have helped his client’s case.
“If someone had told me that he had disciplinary problems, it definitely would have come up,” Kahn said. “This case has an odor.”