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News / Clark County News

Jury yet to reach verdict in guardianship case

At issue is whether man needs professional to manage his affairs

By Laura McVicker
Published: March 31, 2011, 12:00am

After deliberating more than five hours Thursday, a Clark County jury will take up the issue again today of whether a 72-year-old war veteran needs a professional guardian to manage his affairs.

They are tasked with deciding whether Richard Morse is incapacitated and unable to provide for his safety and health.

The jury received the case at 10:30 a.m. and was dismissed for the day at 5 p.m. Jurors will resume deliberations at 8:45 a.m.

Morse lives at Vancouver Health and Rehabilitation Center. The nursing home filed the petition to appoint a third-party professional guardian, someone who handles personal and financial affairs of a person unable to do so.

To appoint a guardian, at least 10 jurors must decide if the evidence was “clear, cogent and convincing,” as opposed to the unanimous verdict and stiffer burden of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard in criminal cases.

Thursday’s case was rare in that it was apparently the first time that 12 Clark County citizens, rather than a judge, were asked to decide a guardianship case.

In her closing argument, the center’s attorney, Rachel Brooks, said Morse has shown a pattern over time that he cannot manage his affairs. In terms of finances — Morse has a $600,000 estate — he’s never had a bank account, she said, and he’s not used to paying bills.

Before his health crisis in February 2010, he hadn’t been to a doctor in years and only went to the hospital at the prompting of a friend.

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Brooks said she disagreed with the defense’s contention that Morse has shown signs of independence.

“Your job is not to judge Mr. Morse’s potential abilities,” she said. “Your job is to judge his demonstrated abilities.”

Brooks also said that while Morse contends the nursing home filed the guardianship petition to collect money from him because he hadn’t been keeping up with his bills, the two situations aren’t connected.

In his counterargument, Morse’s attorney, Jim Senescu, said the case shouldn’t be taken lightly, considering it involves stripping a man of his constitutional rights.

He said that while Morse is eccentric — Brooks contended he suffered psychotic symptoms — there is no clear mental health diagnosis that shows he is in danger.

“He lived his life and he managed,” Senescu said. “This is America. He has the right to live his life the way he wants.”

“It seems like a crime to him to have his rights taken away,” Senescu added.

Senescu said the easy decision would be to approve the guardianship petition to ensure Morse’s safety. But he said that would be the wrong decision; Morse isn’t in a coma or a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. He’s capable of making his own decisions — and vehemently wants to do so.

“The irony we can’t avoid is this is a man who fought in the Vietnam War for constitutional rights,” Senescu said. And here he is in court, “fighting for those same rights.”

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.