The wrongful death case of David Sal Silva
On the night of May 7, 2013, David Sal Silva fell asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center. Several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop.
After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. And shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
These events and those that followed after this night made international news, including the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Chain | Cohn | Clark on behalf of Silva’s family in 2013, to the settlement reached in May 2016.
Below is a chronological order of events and media coverage in the death and civil case of David Sal Silva.
‘BEGGING FOR HELP’
Early reports from law enforcement officials claimed officers struggled with a man in his 30s for eight minutes in front of a home on the corner of Flower Street and Palm Drive in east Bakersfield. Officers used batons and a K-9 unit before officers noticed the man was struggling to breath, called an ambulance, which rushed him across the street to Kern Medical Center emergency room. He would die shortly after.
The man was David Sal Silva, 33, a father of four.
Local media soon after reported a total of seven Kern County Sheriff’s Office deputies, including a K-9, and two California Highway Patrol officers arrived to the scene. They struck Silva with batons, released the K-9 on him, took him to the ground, restrained him and handcuffed him.
Immediately, witnesses stepped forward and described the incident.
“I watched a man deliberately murdered in my face,” one man who did not want to be identified told KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. “I see an officer and the K9 dog, with a man detained on the ground, and the man was screaming for help … They were just sitting on him. And the guys, they were holding him down and punching him, too … He wasn’t resisting. He was begging for help, and begging for his life.”
Besides witness statements, media also reported audio and video documented the beating.
- Man dies after struggle with Kern County deputies, CHP officers (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News, May 7, 2013)
- Man dies after struggle with deputies outside KMC (The Bakersfield Californian, May 8, 2013)
CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATED
Surveillance video obtained by KERO-23 News after the beating death showed Silva being repeatedly beaten with a stick while more law enforcement officers arrive.
A 911 call, too, helped document the incident.
“There is a man laying on the floor and your police officers beat the (expletive) out of him and killed him,” the caller tells dispatchers. “I have it all on video camera. We videotaped the whole thing.”
“He was like a piece of meat,” the caller later told Los Angeles Times. “We were telling them: ‘He’s dead. You guys already killed him.'”
Details also emerged of how officers took witness cell phones that contained videos of officers beating Silva, hogtying him, lifting him and dropping him twice. Witnesses described how they were essentially harassed and held kept captive inside their own home by officers until they released their phones, without a search warrant being presented. Officers promised to return phones the next day, but were told when they inquired about their phones that the Sheriff’s Department was keeping the phone until the investigation was over.
At the same time, the Silva family reached out to and obtained the representation of Chain | Cohn | Clark.
“I have two grieving parents and one grieving brother who want to see the body of their son and brother,” David K. Cohn, managing partner of Chain | Cohn | Clark told news media. “But we will get to the bottom of this and I ask the sheriff’s department, once again, what are you hiding?”
The public feared a cover up by law enforcement officials was in the making, media reported. Chain | Cohn | Clark would plan to file a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of the family.
Meanwhile, Silva’s family mourned his death.
“I can’t believe this happened,” David’s father Sal Silva told The Bakersfield Californian at his vigil, sobbing while kneeling down and touching the blood stains left on the sidewalk from the incident. “My son was a family man who loved his kids and family and in the back of my mind I still hold on to the possibility that the body we haven’t seen, might not be my son.”
The beating death of David Silva brought back memories for many of the infamous Rodney King beating, in addition to other high-profile deaths of minorities at the hands of law enforcement. The coverage would continue for years.
- Man dies after struggle with Kern County deputies, CHP officers (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 7, 2013)
- Dad who died during arrest ‘begged for his life’; witness videos seized (The Bakersfield Californian – May 9, 2013)
- Debate erupts over cell phone video of Silva beating by officers. Witness: “I can still hear him.” (The Bakersfield Californian – May 10, 2013)
- Brother watches and reacts to video of alleged beating by deputies (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 12, 2013)
- Kern County man dies after alleged beating by deputies (Los Angeles Times – May 13, 2013)
- Videotaped sheriff’s beating prompts charges of coverup after death (Los Angeles Times – May 13, 2013)
- After deadly police beating, witness cellphones confiscated (Salon – May 13, 2013)
- Kern County Deputies Allegedly Beating David Sal Silva Repeatedly (Latino Rebels)
- Kern County beating: Woman gave video to dead man’s family (Los Angeles Times – May 14, 2013)
- Fatal Encounter With Police Is Caught on Video, but Kept From the Public (New York Times – May 15, 2013)
- Family’s fury as video reveals how father-of-four was ‘beaten to death by COPS who tried to seize witnesses’ cell phones to cover up savage attack’ (Daily Mail – May 14, 2013)
- Family wants answers after father of 4 dies during arrest (CNN – May 15, 2013)
- Obituary: David Sal Silva (The Bakersfield Californian – May 15, 2013)
PHONES & THE FBI
Fears that police were attempting to cover up details of the beating death of David Silva grew as Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood revealed that video evidence expected to be found on one of two cell phones confiscated from witnesses was not present on the phone.
The phones were handed over to the Bakersfield Police Department for examination, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was also called upon for a “parallel investigation.”
- Sheriff requests FBI inquiry into in-custody death (The Bakersfield Californian – May 14, 2013)
- FBI to probe fatal beating by Kern County deputies (Los Angeles Times – May 14, 2013)
- Lawyer: Witnesses will soon release video of controversial arrest (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 14, 2013)
- Cover-up alleged after California man dies following nightstick beating by sheriff’s deputies (New York Daily News – May 15, 2013)
- David Silva’s Death At Hands Of Kern County Police Sparks Controversy (Huffington Post – May 15, 2013)
- Police Seize Woman’s Camera After She Films Them Fatally Beating a Man (Gawker – May 15, 2013)
- Police accused of erasing cell phone footage of fatal beating (CNET – May 15, 2013)
- FBI investiga muerte de hispano a manos de la policía (Univision – May 15, 2013)
- Impartial reviews should be standard procedure, not just in Silva beating case (The Bakersfield Californian – May 15, 2013)
- Opinion: Where is the outrage about the police beating death of David Silva? (NBC Latino – May 16, 2013)
- David Silva Beating Case in Bakersfield Attracting National Media Attention (Latino Rebels – May 17, 2013)
PROTESTS & LOST TRUST
The beating death of Silva at the hands of police, subsequent phone confiscation, missing videos and other civil rights violations resulted in protests throughout Kern County.
Protesters stood in front of the Kern County Superior Court and held signs that read, “protection of our rights” and “stop police brutality.”
“I believe in my heart that someone has to investigate this and find out why it happened and why it’s been happening, please, just give my brother justice,” Chris Silva, David Silva’s brother, told The Bakersfield Californian.
On May 20, 2013, attorneys for the witnesses who had their phones confiscated and returned by investigators released video footage that showed the final moments of Silva’s life as he screamed while officers held him down.
- Lost trust in law enforcement drives protest against brutality (The Bakersfield Californian – May 16, 2013)
- Protesters take on alleged brutality by Kern County deputies (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 15, 2013)
- Bakersfield protest targets deputies’ fatal beating of man (Los Angeles Times – May 16, 2013)
- In Bakersfield, a muted response to beating by deputies (Los Angeles Times – May 19, 2013)
- Cell phone video of David Silva’s alleged beating death Part #1 (KERO-23, ABC – May 20, 2013)
- Attorney Releases Witness Cell Phone Video of David Silva Case (Latino Rebels – May 21, 2013)
- David Silva Cell Phone Video Released, But Questions Remain About Police Beating (Huffington Post – May 23, 2013)
On May 23, 2013, Sheriff Donny Youngblood called the death of David Silva “accidental” due to heart disease, according to a department he leads, the Kern County Coroner’s Office. Youngblood also slammed media for sending “shockwaves all across the United States” in the case.
“They’re trying to say he died of natural causes,” David Cohn told The Bakersfield Californian. “Who would believe that?”
- Sheriff defends deputies’ conduct, says Silva’s death accidental (The Bakersfield Californian – May 23, 2013)
- Kern County says heart disease, not beating, caused man’s death (Los Angeles Times – May 23, 2013)
- Autopsy: Man beaten by deputies died of heart disease, not blows (Los Angeles Times – May 23, 2013)
- Kern County Sheriff Says In-Custody Death of David Sal Silva Ruled “Accidental” (Latino Rebels – May 23, 2013)
- Sheriff: Beaten Bakersfield man’s death accidental (NBC, Associated Press – May 24, 2013)
- Sheriff: Death of man in police custody ruled accidental by coroner (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 22, 2013)
- Why officers’ names must sometimes be disclosed (The Bakersfield Californian – May 25, 2013)
- The law is unclear as to when can police take videos from witnesses who film officers or crimes (89.3 KPCC – May 31, 2013)
CLAIMS, LAWSUITS FILED
In June 2013, Chain | Cohn | Clark on behalf of the Silva family filed wrongful death and federal civil rights claims claim against the nine officers involved in Silva’s death, Kern County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, Kern County, and the state of California.
The complaint sought damages on behalf of David Silva’s four young children, his significant other, his parents and his brother, for the loss of love, affection, society, service, comfort, support, right of support, expectations of future support and counseling, companionship, solace and mental support, as well as other benefits and assistance of David Silva.
“David Sal Silva was a loving young man who cared deeply for his family and his four young children,” David Cohn said in a statement to media. “On May 7, 2013, David died as a result of unreasonable and excessive force used by nine law enforcement officials, who repeatedly struck him with batons and hog-tied him despite his numerous cries for help. Those cries will forever be heard by his family, and in particular his four children, who will now have to grow up without their father. While this lawsuit will certainly not undo what happened, my hope is that it will serve as a catalyst for serious change amongst local law enforcement agencies. It is time that we put this longstanding ‘strike first, ask questions later’ culture to rest once and for all.”
A month later, local media described inconsistencies between information provided by Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and information found in the Kern County Coroner’s autopsy report, including the use of the hogtie restraint. The tactic has been banned altogether by law enforcement agencies, including the Bakersfield Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Cohn stated the manner by which Silva was restrained may have played a role in Silva’s death by causing “positional asphyxiation.”
- Timeline surrounding David Sal Silva’s death (The Bakersfield Californian – June 1, 2013)
- Silva family supporters rally on eve of legal action (The Bakersfield Californian – June 8, 2013)
- Family files claim in death of man beaten by officers (Los Angeles Times – June 15, 2013)
- Silva family files federal civil rights lawsuit (The Bakersfield Californian – July 17, 2013)
- The CHP stonewalls the public on the Silva case (The Bakersfield Californian – June 27, 2013)
- The Cowboy Cops of Kern County, California, and the Not-So-Accidental Death of David Silva (VICE – July 8, 2013)
- Reports on Silva’s death reveal inconsistencies (The Bakersfield Californian – July 20, 2013)
- How was Silva restrained, and did it kill him? (The Bakersfield Californian – July 20, 2013)
- Seizure of cell phones as evidence a murky area of law (The Bakersfield Californian – Aug. 3, 2013)
NO CRIMINAL CHARGES
In April 2014, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced that her office would not be seeking criminal charges against the law enforcement officers involved in the death of David Silva.
“This is the reason we need an independent advisory panel evaluating these types of cases,” David Cohn said in a statement at the time. “Kern County District Attorney’s Office personnel work with these agencies every day, and they’re the ones in charge of prosecuting cases for them. Apparently, the way it works in Kern County is that unless they catch the officers red-handed, nothing will happen. It appears that they look for ways not to prosecute.
“Given that we do not have an independent panel in place to investigate, that’s the reason we filed a lawsuit in this case on behalf of the Silva family. Through this lawsuit, we believe the truth will come out. We have the ability to question these officers under oath. We’ll be more thorough in this investigation than any investigation that the Kern County District Attorney’s Office has done thus far. We won’t just rely on the investigative reports prepared by the Sheriff’s office, which are self-serving, one-sided versions of the events leading up to David Silva’s tragic death.”
- Kern County prosecutor: No charges in Silva in-custody death (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – April 10, 2013)
- Prosecutors won’t file charges in David Silva’s death (The Bakersfield Californian – April 11, 2014)
- No criminal charges filed against deputies in David Silva case (KERO-23, ABC – April 11, 2014)
- No criminal charges in death of man beaten by Kern County deputies (Los Angeles Times – April 14, 2014)
- David Sal Silva: An American Tragedy (Epilogue) (Latino Rebels – April 15, 2014)
Dozens chanted for justice in downtown Bakersfield on the one-year anniversary of Silva’s death, including representatives from Chain | Cohn | Clark.
“We remain committed to obtaining justice on behalf of David and his entire family, especially his four children, who will be without a father for the rest of their lives,” attorney David Cohn said on the date. “The road to obtaining justice will be a difficult one; however, we are confident that in the end, the truth will prevail and justice will be done. This case is certainly about David Silva and about what happened to him, but it is also about much more than that. It is about changing the culture of local law enforcement in this community, and holding law enforcement officers who use unreasonable and excessive force accountable for their actions.”
Protests and rallies would continue throughout Kern County.
- One year since David Silva died after confrontation with deputies (KERO-23, ABC – May 8, 2014)
- Family says justice hasn’t been served for in-custody death (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 8, 2014)
- Chain | Cohn | Clark marks one-year anniversary of David Silva wrongful death (Blogging for Justice – May 8, 2014)
- On Anniversary of David Silva Slaying, Protesters Demand Justice (South Kern Sol – May 21, 2014)
- Vigil in memory of man killed by Sheriff deputies turns to protest on Mother’s Day (The Rebel Press – May 13, 2014)
- Protesters ask for Kern County Sheriff and Coroner to step down after death of David Silva (KERO-23, ABC – Sept. 7, 2014)
- Rally for David Sal Silva seeks only justice (The Bakersfield Californian – Sept. 7, 2014)
In late October, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Civil Rights Division determined there was not sufficient evidence to sustain a federal criminal prosecution of officers involved in the death of David Sal Silva, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the investigation was closed.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner. “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 Silva family now looked to the civil courts for justice.
- Federal Investigation into Death of David Silva Closed (FBI – Oct. 27. 2014)
- Federal investigation into David Silva’s death closed (KERO-23, ABC – Oct. 27, 2014)
- Feds: No prosecution warranted in David Sal Silva death (The Bakersfield Californian – Oct. 27, 2014)
- Police shooting of unarmed man draws hundreds to site (The Bakersfield Californian – Nov. 14, 2014)
- Brother’s death in Bakersfield haunts critic of Sheriff’s Department (Los Angeles Times – Nov. 20, 2014)
PROTESTS FOR CHANGE
In the months and several deaths at the hands of police throughout the United States — Michael Brown in Furguson, Miss. and Eric Garner in New York — sparked protests and riots nationwide. In Bakersfield, police shot unarmed Ramiro James Villegas (James De La Rosa) in November 2014, which helped advance the chants for more accountability locally. In Kern County, the Silva family led the charge.
“Police brutality is an issue here and we won’t let it go away,” Chris Silva said at a December 2014 rally.
In March 2015, hundreds of family members, friends and supporters of people who have lost loved ones in confrontations with local law enforcement took to the streets of Bakersfield in a march that revisited the scenes of some of the deaths, including the scene of the death of David Silva.
“I’m here to support the Silva family and all the other families who have lost loved ones because of mistakes made by the police,” Chain | Cohn | Clark attorney Neil Gehlawat told The Bakersfield Californian. “We’re not saying all police officers are bad people,” Gehlawat said. “But on occasion, police officers cross the line, and when that happens it’s important the officer be held accountable so that it doesn’t happen again to another family.”
In July, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office announced it would be reviewing all officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, and all uses of force resulting in death, for all law enforcement agencies throughout Kern County. Protesters contended the DA’s office has already shown that it cannot provide truly independent oversight of the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
- Protesters demand an end to police brutality outside Valley Plaza Mall, partially block streets (KERO-23, ABC – Dec. 21 2014)
- Police protests near Valley Plaza Mall (KGET-17, NBC – Dec. 21, 2014)
- Kern, Too, Is Feeling the Impact of Ferguson (South Kern Sol – Dec. 19. 2014)
- Beyond the headlines: Does the Sherrif’s Department have a bad image with the community? (KERO-23, ABC – Feb. 21, 2015)
- Locals call for more accountability in law enforcement (KGET-17, NBC – March 14, 2015)
- March draws attention to deaths in encounters with law enforcement (The Bakersfield Californian – March 14, 2015)
- Friends, family say DA police review panel not truly independent (The Bakersfield Californian – July 18, 2015)
- Calif. marchers denounce brutal cops in ‘deadliest county’ in US (The Militant – April 4, 2016)
‘AMERICA’S DEADLIEST POLICE’
In December 2015, The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States —unveiled its five-part series that examines the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County.
“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”
Among the cases highlighted by The Guardian was the death of David Sal Silva, and other Chain | Cohn | Clark civil rights and wrongful death cases. The series featured how the brutal tactics of officers in Kern County have ended lives, cost the public millions, and prompted claims of a police force out of control.
- Publication highlights ‘America’s deadliest police’ of Kern County, law firm cases (Blogging for Justice – Dec. 2, 2015)
- British newspaper’s examination of Kern law enforcement casts critical light (The Bakersfield Californian – Dec. 12, 2015)
- The County: where deputies dole out rough justice (The Guardian – Dec. 4, 2015)
In March 2016, a federal judge refused to dismiss most claims, including those involving allegations of excessive force and wrongful death, in the lawsuit filed against Kern County in the death of David Silva.
“This is a resounding victory for us because the judge ruled in our favor in almost all of the claims, both federal and state,” attorney Neil Gehlawat told The Bakersfield Californian. “We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling in that respect, and believe his ruling is consistent with the evidence in the case.”
Chain | Cohn | Clark worked together on the civil case with the Law Offices of Dale Galipo, as a lead trial attorney. The trial was set to begin in U.S. District Court in Fresno on May 12, 2016.
- Judge refuses to toss excessive force claims in David Sal Silva case (The Bakersfield Californian – March 8, 2016) (Read The Bakersfield Californian on PDF)
On Wednesday, May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.
“The settlement today, nearly three years to the date of Silva’s death, is a vindication of a three-year campaign by the Silva family for justice, which brought national and international media attention to police brutality in Bakersfield,” Chain | Cohn | Clark said in a statement announcing the settlement.
Attorneys from Chain | Cohn | Clark and Law Offices of Dale Galipo hosted a press conference for media on May 5, 2016, along with Silva’s family. You can watch the complete press conference here.
“This case is now over, and this settlement is a bittersweet end to a long journey to achieving justice,” said attorney Neil Gehlawat during the press conference. “It’s bitter in that David is not here with us, and he is not here today to be a father to his children, to be a brother, to be a son. But it’s sweet because we know that the money that we’ve obtained in this case is going to go a long way to helping David’s children secure a bright future.”
* Editor’s Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Clark *
- County settles David Sal Silva case for $3.4 million (The Bakersfield Californian – May 4, 2016) (Read The Bakersfield Californian on PDF)
- David Silva wrongful death, civil rights lawsuit settles for $3.4 million (KERO-23, ABC – May 4, 2016)
- $3.4 million settlement reached in 2013 David Silva arrest death (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 4, 2016) (YouTube Video)
- Attorney: Wrongful death, civil rights lawsuit settles for $3.4 million (KGET-17, NBC – May 4, 2016)
- Full Press Conference (TBC Media – May 5, 2016)
- Family of man killed in Kern County law enforcement custody, settles for $3.4 million (KGET-17, NBC – May 5, 2016)
- Family, attorneys lash out at law enforcement during press conference in David Sal Silva case (The Bakersfield Californian – May 5, 2016) (Read The Bakersfield Californian on PDF)
- California’s Kern County settles $3.4m civil lawsuit in death of David Silva (The Guardian – May 5, 2016)
- Kern County pays $3.4 million to settle wrongful death suit against sheriff’s department (Los Angeles Times – May 5, 2016)
- KCSO Sheriff Donny Youngblood talks $3.4M wrongful death settlement of David Silva (KERO-23, ABC – May 5, 2016) (YouTube Video)
- Family of David Silva says settlement with Kern County proves wrongdoing, KCSO says it does not (KGET-17, NBC – May 5, 2016) (YouTube Video)
- Kern County Settles David Silva Wrongful Death Case For $3.4 Million (Valley Public Radio – May 5, 2016)
- Family of David Sal Silva Awarded $3.4 Million in Wrongful Death Suit (Latino Rebels – May 6, 2016)
- Kern County counsel defends deputies involved with expensive wrongful death lawsuit (KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News – May 6, 2016) (YouTube Video)
- Familia de David Silva recibe $3.4 millones en caso de brutalidad policial (Telemundo – May, 6, 2016)
- Kern County Whacked Hard for Abuses (Courthouse News Service – May 11, 2016)
- Condado de Kern a pagar 3.4 millones de dólares a la familia de David Silva (El Popular – May 12, 2016)
- David Silva’s relatives received a settlement, but did they get justice? (Los Angeles Times – May 13, 2016)
- Looking back at 2016: County settles David Sal Silva wrongful death lawsuit (The Bakersfield Californian – Dec. 28, 2016)
- Police Reform Movement Sparks New Interest in Dividing Coroner and Sheriff Functions in Some California Counties (KCET – June 19, 2020)