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Prosecutor Chris Morris championed rights of jail inmates. He’ll continue to do so as a judge

It was late 2011 and Chris Morris was surfing Swami’s in Encinitas. A man paddled up and introduced himself as Greg Sisson. Sisson had heard from a mutual friend that Morris was an attorney and he wanted to tell him about what had happened to his son.

Earlier that year, Sisson explained, his 21-year-old son Daniel had died in the Vista Detention Facility from an asthma attack exacerbated by opiate withdrawal. An avid surfer, Daniel had contracted a bacterial infection while on a surfing trip in Costa Rica that led to painful inflammatory arthritis. He was prescribed opiates to alleviate the pain and eventually became addicted. Prescription drugs led to heroin and a few jail stints.

Morris, a former prosecutor for the San Diego City Attorney, had recently moved to private practice. He had handled some civil rights lawsuits, but had never filed a case involving jails.

The Sisson case went to trial in 2014. County attorneys were so confident they would win, they told Morris during jury selection that if he dropped the case, he would be off the hook for attorney’s fees.

But the jury sided with Morris and awarded Daniel’s parents $3.2 million, a repudiation of the county’s attempts to paint him as an irresponsible drug addict.

Earlier this month, Morris was selected by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be a San Diego Superior Court judge. His last day at his law practice was Thursday. He will be officially sworn in on July 22.

The Sisson case served as an early warning of failings in local jails that would ultimately lead to the county having the highest mortality rate among California’s large jail systems. Evidence Morris uncovered in the case would later be highlighted in a scathing state audit — released earlier this year — of San Diego County jails. Inadequate safety checks were a key issue for auditors. Surveillance video presented to the jury in the Sisson case showed deputies doing what Morris called “drive-bys,” walking quickly past Daniel’s cell, barely glancing in as the young man suffered a slow death from suffocation.

The case also underscored the dangers of unmonitored opiate withdrawal. Earlier this month, more than a decade after Daniel’s death, the jails added the option of medication-assisted treatment to ease the painful withdrawal process and help alleviate drug cravings.

Morris said he would like to see more reforms.

“Unfortunately, even though they’re making policy changes on paper, it hasn’t translated to a decreased number of deaths in the jail,” he said.

“(Policies) are still, you may do this or you can do that. … The policies are deficient in giving clear, unambiguous direction — if you see something, you have to do something.”

Morris would go on to specialize in cases involving jail deaths and injuries. Last year, he and co-counsel Danielle Pena secured a $2.95 million settlement for the widow of Heron Moriarty, a father of three who died by suicide — also in the Vista jail — in 2016.

Michelle Moriarty said Morris immediately made her and her kids feel like family. She said she broke down in tears when Morris told her that he had participated in a suicide prevention walk in Heron’s memory.

“I know we will remain friends after all this is over,” she said.

Morris told The San Diego Union Tribune that, as a judge, he will use what he has learned litigating jail cases.

“Coming from a prosecutorial background, I had a perception of anybody in jail as an inmate,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, that perception has changed dramatically. I see them as people who have sad stories to tell and people who really, despite what they’ve done in their lives, still deserve and need to be protected and they need to be heard.”

Morris is a San Diego native with deep ties to the region. He graduated from Grossmont High School and San Diego State University. His father was a deputy city attorney and labor negotiator for the city of San Diego; his great-grandfather was San Diego’s first Latino fire captain. His grandfather was also a fire captain; Morris has his captain’s helmet on a shelf in his office.

Morris said he applied for a seat on the bench because it had been a lifelong goal and the stress of civil rights litigation was starting to impact his health. Still, leaving his law practice was difficult, he said.

“Being a civil rights attorney is not for the faint of heart; it really takes a lot out of you,” he said. “I don’t think that you can go into this line of work without feeling and experiencing and appreciating the trauma that (your clients) have suffered in their lives and really dedicating yourself at the risk of everything else to bring them justice. I just don’t think that it’s something you can do forever.”

Danielle Pena, who’s been with Morris since the Sisson case, is starting a new firm, PHG Law Group, with Byron Husted and Jacob Gillick, attorneys who handled corporate, estate and criminal litigation for the Morris Law Firm. Pena will handle the half-dozen pending jail cases.

Pena, who described Morris as compassionate and open-minded, said she’s “overwhelmingly proud” to see him appointed to the bench.

“I know that the knowledge and expertise he has gained in representing both plaintiffs and defendants will lead him to be a fair and just judge,” she said.

Civil rights attorney Gene Iredale also praised Morris’ work.

“He did a magnificent job in the Sisson case,” Iredale said. “He dealt with a great deal of expert testimony; he presented the case very well to the jury. That was one of the first major civil rights verdicts in a jail death in the county.”

Iredale agreed that this kind of litigation can take its toll, especially when a case takes four, five or six years to resolve.

“The skills that are demanded of the lawyers in these wrongful death cases are not only legal skills but the ability to deal with the psychological issues surrounding mourning and loss,” he said, “the necessity to try to encourage people to hang in even though the case is seeming to drag on forever and ever and the ability to try to listen and understand, which is the hardest thing of all.”

Marc Carlos, a criminal defense attorney who has known Morris for more than two decades, described him as “incredibly well-respected as a trial attorney.”

“With a good set of facts, he can do anything,” Carlos said.

And he cares about his clients, he added. Carlos had represented a man in criminal court who was severely beaten by deputies in the San Bernardino jail. He called Morris to see if he would take the civil case. A jury awarded the man $75,000 for his injuries and a judge awarded Morris $700,000 in fees. Morris shared half with the man, which he thought was only fair.

When Morris learned the man, who had struggled with addiction, had fallen back into using drugs, he called Carlos.

“Chris called me and said, ‘Hey, we really need to help Tim out.’ He got me back on board.” Carlos is currently representing the man.

“He’s going to make an excellent judge,” Carlos said. “He has an open mind, he treats people with respect and people really open up to him, which is a good thing.”

Iredale agrees.

“You know the famous saying that people will never remember what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel? Chris is like that. He has the ability to put people at ease; even in a situation in which he’s fighting on the other side, he’s always amiable, respectful and decent.”