Helms Lewis: Time is now for change at DA’s
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“I have more substantial experience
in management than Mr. Morse did when he first became the
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.