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The family of David Silva received a $3.4-million settlement from Kern County, but did they get justice?

The family of David Silva received a $3.4-million settlement from Kern County, but did they get justice?
Chris Silva and his mother, Merri Silva, sit in front of a poster of David Silva, who died in an altercation with Kern County sheriff's deputies three years ago. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Three years ago, Chris Silva lost his older brother to an altercation with sheriff's deputies so extreme that witnesses called 911 to make it stop.

In a county accustomed to violent encounters between citizens and law enforcement officers, this case stood out. David Silva died after nine law officers and a biting police dog set upon him; Silva, 33, was asleep when it all began.

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But what really grabbed attention around the world was an unusual detail; sheriff's detectives confiscated the cellphones of witnesses who had videotaped what they believed was the beat-down of an intoxicated man. One witness claimed his video was deleted.

A pathologist hired by the Kern County sheriff said Silva died of heart disease, complicated by obesity. His blood-alcohol level was slightly above the legal limit and he had small amounts of methamphetamine and an anti-anxiety drug in his system as well.

In his deposition, the county pathologist testified that he had been told by Sheriff's Department officials that no excessive force had been used. He said that he was not aware that deputies had sat on their hogtied, handcuffed suspect's back for several minutes, compressing his chest. "If I was misled," said the pathologist, "that's new information, I change my mind."

A pathologist hired by the Silvas, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, said David Silva died of asphyxiation.

So was it excessive force? A tragic accident? We may never have an official verdict.

Last week, just before the trial was scheduled to begin, Kern County offered to settle the case for $3.4 million. The family believed they had a strong case. After all, the federal judge assigned to hear it ruled that the jury could hear the claim that sheriff's detectives had tampered with the video.

For the sake of David Silva's five children, however, the family accepted.

Settling was a painful decision for Chris Silva, 34, a Home Depot supervisor. For three years, he has organized rallies, stood on sidewalks holding handmade signs demanding justice for his brother. He has traveled the country telling David's story. In a conservative, law-enforcement-friendly town such as Bakersfield, it has sometimes been a lonely fight.

The Kern County district attorney had found that deputies used reasonable force. The FBI, which appeared to have reviewed documents but conducted no interviews, said that it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Chris is undaunted. He continues to push for a new federal investigation. "We were one of the first, if not the first, families to stand up and call attention," he said. "We allowed the public to know there is a problem here."

The notion that Kern County has a problem with deputies using excessive force was reinforced in December, when the Guardian published a five-part investigation claiming that Kern County law enforcement officers are "the country's most lethal" and had killed "more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015."

::

In dueling news conferences last week, each side spun the settlement in a predictable way.

"Those deputies and officers involved in that incident killed David Silva," said Silva family attorney Neil Gehlawat. "This settlement is a reflection of that reality."

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"This settlement represents for the Kern County Sheriff's Department a richly deserved black eye," said Tom Seabaugh, another family attorney.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he opposed the settlement. He has maintained that his deputies did nothing wrong, and was not just unapologetic, but in my view, needlessly caustic. "I haven't heard the Silva family talk one time that they wish their loved one hadn't been a meth addict," he said.

"David was not a meth addict," Chris Silva told me. "And anyway, what does that have to do with nine officers beating him to death? Don't distract us from the obvious."

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I met Chris and his mother, Merri, at Chris' comfortable home here on Tuesday. Chris inherited the place from his father, Sal Silva, who died a year ago of a heart attack at age 57.

I wanted to know why the Silvas, who have been so persistent, agreed to settle.

"Going to trial was what we planned and where my heart was," Chris said. "Until you sit in a room with lawyers who convince you otherwise."

"If it was only Chris and me, we could go to trial," Merri said, "but we have to make sure the children are going to be OK."

The county, Chris said, first offered $200,000 to settle, then $2.1 million, before coming up to $3.4 million. The mediator told him she thought that was probably the best the family could hope for.

"The lawyers said we had to think very hard about this," Chris said. "The juries here are very conservative and very pro-police."

Even with a settlement, though, the Silvas aren't going to pipe down. They have a website. They plan to post depositions. They want to publicize the names of the men they believe killed their loved one.

They are also considering creating a foundation in David's memory to support a resource center for families of people who have experienced similar losses at the hands of law enforcement.

"The biggest failure in this town is that there is not any kind of organization that has stood strong for us," Chris said. "A foundation would be an outreach for families going through the same struggle as us, to find an easier path to pursue justice."

That's the thing about this case.

The Silvas got a big settlement from Kern County. But did they get justice?

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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