Peyton Morse's family decries grand jury's choice not to file criminal charges

The N.Y. firefighter's family stressed that the decision "does not prove no crime was committed, only that insufficient evidence was provided to indict"


By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The family of fallen city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse is "shocked and saddened" that a grand jury has decided not to file criminal charges in his death, saying that the state continues to fail him.

In a news release issued Wednesday, the family said it "strongly disagrees with this decision," but stressed that it "does not prove no crime was committed, only that insufficient evidence was provided to indict."

Peyton L.S. Morse, a 21-year-old Watertown firefighter, had a medical emergency on March 3, 2021, at the New York State Academy of Fire Science. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital.
Peyton L.S. Morse, a 21-year-old Watertown firefighter, had a medical emergency on March 3, 2021, at the New York State Academy of Fire Science. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital. (Photo/Morse Family)

The 21-year-old Watertown firefighter had a medical emergency on March 3, 2021, at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital. His parents blame the academy for his death.

His parents, David M. Morse and Stacy L. Morse, have been critical of the way that the state has treated them and the investigation.

The nearly three-page statement is the first time that the family is responding since Schuyler County District Attorney Joseph G. Fazzary announced Monday that a grand jury found there was not enough evidence to file charges in the young firefighter's death.

"The district attorney and the grand jury do not investigate, they can only present and act upon the information they receive, and the family has been critical of the investigation they received from the beginning, and this furthers that belief," the family said in the statement.

The statement echoes much of what Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman said earlier this week about the grand jury's decision.

Family members continue to "feel revictimized" in the way that the state has treated them and how it failed Peyton.

They had called for an independent investigation into Peyton's death from the beginning, citing the state was incapable of an unbiased investigation because there was a conflict of interest to look into what happened at the state fire academy.

They continue to criticize Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul and state Attorney General Letitia A. James for ignoring their complaints for an independent investigation and the way that the state handled it.

The family questions why a local state police investigator who was stationed on the grounds at the fire academy where Peyton died was first assigned to look into the firefighter's death.

"This certainly brings up the question of a conflict of interest and his ability to be unbiased," the family's statement said. "His initial investigation included no signed written statements, limited notes and limited photographs, and his attitude can be summed up in a statement he made separately to both Peyton's father and fire chief: 'Sometimes people die, you are going to have to get used to it.'"

Calling it "an unbelievably callous and unprofessional statement," the family believes that it shows the state's inability "to conduct a thorough, professional, and unbiased investigation."

Eventually, the state police Violent Crimes Unit with Troop E, based in Canandaigua, was assigned to investigate Peyton's death. The evidence was presented to a grand jury over the past three months.

However, state police never talked to the family about the investigation, nor were they granted access to its report, according to the statement.

"We do know, starting an investigation 6 months late, is an extreme disadvantage to a thorough investigation," the family said.

Family members also continue to be critical of the state's Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH investigation, stressing that the state agency initially did not want to get involved in looking into what happened, and then determined the fire academy did nothing wrong after Peyton had the medical emergency.

"Their initial official report included misleading and blatantly false information, that was removed after the family's complaint, but no explanation was given for the inclusion of the false information, which the family believes was a criminal offense itself," according to the statement.

The family also accuses PESH and the attorney general's office of acting improperly by cooperating with each other in exchanging information about what happened, even though the AG's office cited a conflict of interest for not investigating it.

The family was told there were numerous phone calls between PESH investigators and the AG's office. The family also was told that the AG's office tried to get a copy of the investigation from the district attorney and state police investigators.

But Mr. Fazzary denied the request.

Family members called the AG's involvement "unethical and unfair," adding it calls into question whether the agencies performed their duties in "a professional and unbiased manner."

They also believe that instructors were negligent and could have prevented their son's death. Instructors waited too long to come to Peyton's aid after he called for help, indicating that he could not breathe while inside a training apparatus, a plywood box that simulated what it's like to be in a fire.

They continue to accuse instructors of bullying and hazing fire recruits over the years.

To prevent further injuries or deaths, family members are calling for changes in the way fire recruits are treated during training, accusing the academy and instructors of putting them in danger for not following rules, procedures and protocols.

"This is not just about the death of their son, brother, loved one; it is larger than that. It is about a broken system. A system that is protecting state employees and agencies that repeatedly act unprofessionally and create unsafe and biased working conditions," the family said.

Family members fear that the inaction by the grand jury will only embolden instructors to continue the hazing and bullying, so the family will continue to fight to protect future recruits, they said.

The governor and AG's offices did not respond to a reporter's request for comment.

Chet Lasell, a spokesman for state Homeland Security, which oversees the fire academy, declined to comment, saying he would respond in written form.

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