Helms Lewis: Time is now for change at DA’s Office

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
May 10, 2018

Kimberly Helms Lewis says she feels very deeply and strongly that it is important for Merced County voters to have a choice over who will be the District Attorney for the next four years.

She says she made her own choice to campaign and become that leader — the region’s top prosecutor — even though she was an unknown, with no political connections, and had never ran for elected office before.

“There is a need,” Helms Lewis says. “I think it is very important that the foundation your leadership is established on is motivated for the benefit of the community, and is motivated by sound ethical decisions, sound legal decisions, and legal principles that are the basis of our concept of justice. …

“When you look at Lady Justice, and she is standing there with the scales and the blindfold — that’s what our community wants. We want to know that when someone is reviewing a case, and making decisions about whether or not to file charges, that they are looking at the legal principles that are involved, and that they are not swayed by any other issue when they are making those decisions …

“We want to know that the decisions being made for our community are being made because there is a deep understanding of community issues, and there is a consensus among a broad swath of central players — probation, law enforcement, human services, mental health — that all voices are being heard.”

Helms Lewis is a 48-year-old Mercedian who works as a prosecutor in the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. She is running against Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II who has held his position since 2006. The race will be decided in the primary election process that ends on June 5.

If elected, Helms Lewis would become the first-ever woman to take the helm of the county’s prosecutor’s office since it first opened back in 1855.

The candidate says she has serious concerns about sexual harassment allegations that have been directed at District Attorney Morse, possible rifts between the DA’s Office and other county offices, and legal decisions that have the appearance of being politically motivated.

Helms Lewis announced her election challenge just weeks after a bombshell Sun-Star report named three former Merced prosecutors — llia and Mike Mckinney, who are married, and Rita Carlson — who say Morse made sexual comments to female subordinates and inappropriately kissed a married employee about five years ago.

Morse says the claims are hurtful and unfair, and points out that there has never been a complaint filed against him. He says such behavior isn’t the culture he promotes in his office, and he has submitted a letter by 28 current and former women employees of the DA’s Office who support him.

Helms Lewis — who worked with Morse at the Merced County DA’s Office when Morse was a chief deputy district attorney — offers a different view.

“Those allegations (printed in the Sun-Star) were consistent with my experiences and observations while I was an employee at the District Attorney’s office,” she says. “It was very disheartening to see that the behaviors that were long ago present were continuing.”

She is also critical of circumstances related to the recent jury verdict involving the District Attorney’s son, Ethan Morse, who was falsely arrested on a murder charge and awarded damages in a federal civil rights trial. She said there is an appearance that the District Attorney took two positions at the same time in that case, and she pointed out that there are past and current legal cases that have been handled by the Merced County Sheriff’s lieutenant and a detective who have faced accusations of wrongdoing in the investigation related to Morse’s son. She added that statements Morse made to witnesses in the investigation could prove problematic.

The candidate says there are also problems in general related to the how the DA’s Office works with other county departments, and that Morse has been called out about disturbing comments he made in a voice message to a county public defender. “The DA should be working with other county departments collaboratively to come up with solutions to our community’s problems and issues. If you are in the midst of battles with department heads then it makes it very difficult to do that.”

Furthermore, Helms Lews highlights the DA’s Office decision in February to not file any charges against Atwater Mayor Jim Price for allegedly using a rifle to shoot from a vehicle at squirrels on the ground at Castle Airport.

“It may not seem like a big deal,” she says, “but it is representative of what this community is concerned about … It has the appearance that there are political motivations in the decisions being made by the District Attorney’s Office.”

Helms Lewis says she thought Morse was going to retire when she was considering her campaign for the office. She said she decided to run before the Sun-Star’s front page sexual harassment expose in late February, but she also admitted knowing beforehand about the newspaper investigating the issue.

“My platform is ‘Tough, Fair, and Honest,’” she says. “If the community is looking for that in their prosecutor then that’s why they should consider me.”

A native of San Luis Obispo, Helms Lewis moved to Fresno at an early age. She graduated from Hoover High School before completing her undergraduate studies at Principia College in Illinois, and her law degree at Case Western Reserve University of Law in 1996.

She was married during that time — about eight years outside of California — and started a family that would eventually grow to include four children.

Her first job after returning to California and passing the bar exam, was as a contract public defender for Modoc County in the northeast corner of the state. She was hired by the Board of Supervisors, and represented half of the county’s most indigent clients caught up in cases, many of them linked to drug-related crimes. She said in a span of a year she was able to take 10 cases to trial and had a reasonable success rate as a public defender.

In 1998, the candidate says she interviewed and was later hired as a prosecutor by then Merced County District Attorney Gordon Spencer. She went right into felony domestic violence cases, and ended up working on those cases, as well as child sexual assault, and abuse cases, over a period of 8 1/2 years.

During that time, Helms Lewis says she prosecuted the domestic violence homicide case known as the People Vs. William Terry Huff. The defendant claimed that his girlfriend’s death was an accident due to a gun that malfunctioned, and was proven to have malfunction problems. However, experts were able to establish that if a person was familiar with the type of gun, and understood its malfunction problems, it could still be operated and used in an intentional way. The jury agreed and convicted Huff on second degree murder charges. Due to her work, Helms Lewis says she became the first woman to prosecute a homicide case in Merced County.

With her children going to local schools, Helms Lewis says she made a lateral move in 2006 to the Merced County Counsel’s Office where she was assigned to the Human Services Agency under Ana Pagan. She handled personnel matters, appeal processes, department contract reviews, conservatorship issues, and some cases related to children being removed from abusive family life situations. Meanwhile, she said she also learned a great deal about the county’s budget process.

Concerning criticism that she lacks management experience to lead the Merced County District Attorney’s office, the candidate points to her time at HSA — a department with more than 500 employees — and related management duties.

“I have more substantial experience in management than Mr. Morse did when he first became the district attorney.”

There have also been calls from the Morse camp for Helms Lewis to release her personnel file from her time at County Counsel. Helms Lewis fires back that there’s such a thing as an “employee’s right to privacy.” She called the request a diversion tactic on the part of Morse. She adds that she went through a very extensive background check to gain recent employment with Stanislaus County.

Indeed, after nearly a decade with the Merced County Counsel, the candidate says she really missed being in the courtroom. With her children getting older, she decided last year to take a deputy district attorney job with Stanislaus County.

Today she handles the Vehicle Theft Unit and Insurance Fraud. She is handling that unit alone as the county waits to hire another prosecutor.

Helms Lewis was interviewed by the Times on a Sunday, and she said the next day she was facing 32 cases on the calendar, including two preliminary hearings that would cause her to be in court for most of the day. Then later she would have to process paperwork for the remaining cases, and somehow manage to make a union meeting where she was going to speak about her political campaign.

The candidate has four children from her first marriage and three stepchildren. Last year, she married her partner of eight years, Tom Lewis, who is a partner at a law firm in Merced.

Her youngest daughter is an 8th grader at Rivera School in Merced. She has a 17-year-old daughter who is a star volleyball player and student at El Capitan High. The teen just got a full-ride scholarship for the University of Hartford. She also has a 19-year-old daughter studying at UC Davis, and a 22-year-old son studying at Clovis Community College.


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