The criminal investigation into the death of David Sal Silva has been closed after an independent FBI inquiry determined there was not enough evidence to support a federal prosecution against local law enforcement officers, federal authorities said Monday.
For the seven Kern County sheriff’s deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers present during the May 2013 altercation with Silva, it means they will face no criminal charges.
But Silva’s family and their attorneys say it’s far from over. Civil lawsuits claiming wrongful death and violations of Silva’s civil rights continue in the case.
At a hastily scheduled press conference Monday in the office of Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, the sheriff said the investigation by his office, as well as a second investigation by the Kern County District Attorney’s office and a third by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that, in the aftermath of Silva’s death, “attorneys painted a false picture of what had occurred.”
“I think three separate investigations is all I can do,” Youngblood said.
Silva died May 8, 2013 while in the custody of Kern County Sheriff’s deputies. The incident, covered widely by local news outlets, led to protests and questions about whether excessive force was used by some or all of the nine officers. A police dog was also deployed to subdue the 33-year-old Bakersfield man, who died less than an hour after he was first contacted by a deputy.
The matter was referred by Youngblood to the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, and to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.
“To maintain the public’s trust and fulfill the high obligations undertaken by all law enforcement, it is critical that we diligently evaluate such allegations,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said in a news release. “We undertook a careful evaluation of the evidence in this case, and we appreciate the assistance we received, particularly from our partners in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I extend my condolences to the entire Silva family for the loss they suffered with the tragic passing of Mr. Silva.”
The confrontation between Silva and law enforcement began at five minutes before midnight on May 7, 2013, after deputies responded to a report of an intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center in east Bakersfield. Silva, who was found sleeping across the street from the hospital, fought against deputies and the police dog, investigators said. Deputies said they struck him with batons in an effort to get him to comply with their orders, to no avail. Silva also suffered from multiple dog bites.
Deputies handcuffed Silva, and, with the assistance of two California Highway Patrol officers, used a hobble restraint on his legs.
Opposing attorneys say officers attached the hobble restraint to Silva’s handcuffs behind his back, a hold commonly known as hogtying. Considered dangerous and potentially fatal, especially to obese individuals like Silva, the hogtying restraint is prohibited by many law enforcement agencies, including the Bakersfield Police Department.
According to the Kern County Sheriff's Office's manual of policies and procedures, the leg hobble — a 42-inch webbed Polypropylene belt with a brass clip at one end and a permanent loop at the other — may be used “in those cases where the use of handcuffs alone is not adequate to control the person and prevent him or her from further injuring himself/herself or others.”
The sheriff’s office does not prohibit the hogtie, but it discourages the restraint “except in the gravest of circumstances...”
A spit mask was also placed on Silva, both for the blood on his face and because deputies were afraid he might spit on them.
It had been in place 20 seconds when Silva vomited, and then it was immediately removed.
Deputies rolled Silva onto his side and checked his pulse three times. The third time they could not feel a pulse.
Medical aid arrived soon afterward. But Silva was pronounced dead 49 minutes after the first deputy awakened him with a knuckle rub to the sternum.
Los Angeles attorney Dale Galipo, the lead trial attorney in one of the pending civil cases, said Monday he was not surprised by the results of the federal investigation.
It’s extremely rare for them to recommend criminal prosecution, which is probably part of the problem,” said Galipo, who specializes in police misconduct cases. “Most often investigations find that officials acted appropriately.”
The family, he said, must look to the civil courts for justice.
Following Silva’s autopsy, the pathologist determined Silva died as a result of hypertensive heart disease. He had amphetamine, methamphetamine and the muscle relaxant Phenazepam in his system at the time of his death, and a blood alcohol content of .095, according to the coroner’s office.
Dr. Frank Sheridan, chief medical examiner of San Bernardino County, was hired by the DA’s office to review the findings. He concluded the autopsy was done in a thorough manner and there was no evidence Silva’s death was a result of blunt force trauma or physical restraint that caused him to be unable to breathe.
Galipo acknowledged the autopsy results could be a hurdle for plaintiffs’ attorneys. But he argued pathologists often feel pressure to find in favor of their employers.
“One thing we know for sure,” Galipo said. “David Silva was alive and well when officers arrived. He was on the ground. He was not armed. Why they decided to use that much force on him is uncertain.”
Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who is representing Silva’s longtime girlfriend, Tara Garlick, and the couple’s four young children, called the decision by the Justice Department “disappointing.”
“Is that going to have any kind of effect on the civil case?” he asked. “Here’s the answer: Absolutely, positively no way.”
Rodriguez cited the O.J. Simpson case as a classic example. While the ex-football star was acquitted in a criminal court of murdering his wife and a male acquaintance, he was found liable in civil court.
“Why? Because there are a different set of rules, a different set of laws, that apply to a criminal case and that apply to a civil case,” Rodriguez said. “The fact that they’re not going to prosecute the law enforcement people involved in the beating of David Silva will have no effect on the civil case.”
Despite those assurances from plaintiffs’ attorneys, Merri and Christopher Silva, David Silva’s mother and brother, respectively, said Monday they were devastated by the Justice Department’s findings. If deputies present at the scene of the confrontation are not held legally responsible, they said they don’t feel justice will have been done.
“I don’t care about the civil case,” Christopher Silva said.
Based on depositions, Silva believes deputies and witnesses at the scene were not interviewed by the FBI. That’s why he views the federal investigation as simply a review of the sheriff’s office investigation, not as an independent investigation in its own right.
“That’s a big red flag,” he said.
But Youngblood said the combination of three investigations by three independent agencies made a powerful statement.
“Ninety-nine percent of the deputies are out there doing a fantastic, terrific job,” he said. “And in this particular case it’s unfortunate that someone had to lose their life.”
When one considers the findings of the pathologist and the three independent investigations, Youngblood said, one has to conclude that “attorneys attempted to paint a picture of something that didn’t occur.”
Youngblood also said he was not surprised by the DOJ’s findings.
“The reason I invited the FBI was not to prove me right,” he said. “It was to let the public have a more transparent view of what occurred out there. I already knew what occurred out there. I already knew these deputies had done the job they were supposed to do. I already knew the deputies did not beat Mr. Silva to death.”