BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
It was five minutes before midnight -- and by all accounts, 33-year-old David Sal Silva was very much alive.
Forty-nine minutes later, following a confrontation with deputies, he was pronounced dead.
READ FOR YOURSELF
To read a transcript of Sheriff Donny Youngblood's May 23 press conference, go to http://tinyurl.com/m7p5ruc.
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- Sheriff defends deputies' conduct, says Silva's death accidental
The importance of what happened in those few intervening minutes cannot be overstated.
Silva's family and loved ones have the right to know how he died, and maybe more importantly, why.
The county of Kern needs to know because millions of taxpayer dollars may be at stake as expected lawsuits begin to materialize.
And the people of the community want to know because they must be able to trust the law enforcement agencies that work each day to keep them safe from crime.
Besides eyewitness accounts, which have been critical of deputies' actions -- and police accounts, which have defended the use of batons and a hogtie restraint method authorities refer to as "hobbling" -- there is an official document that is central to the case.
THE CORONER'S REPORT
At a press conference on May 23, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who is also the Kern County coroner, released his office's 44-page autopsy and toxicology report on Silva.
The father of four died May 8, less than an hour after a struggle with several law enforcement officers who tried to arrest him after he was found sleeping on a street corner in east Bakersfield
The autopsy, conducted by pathologist Dr. Eugene Carpenter, concluded the manner of Silva's death was accidental, Youngblood said. The cause of death: hypertensive heart disease.
In other words, the coroner's report found that Silva died because he had a heart condition, not because of his struggle with law enforcement officers.?
"Other significant conditions" listed in the report were acute intoxication, chronic alcoholism, severe abdominal obesity, chronic hypertension and acute pulmonary cardiovascular strain.
Nowhere in the report did the pathologist assert that the multiple dog bites, multiple strikes from three deputies' batons, the fact that Silva's wrists and ankles were tied together behind his back, or the struggle itself were contributing factors in Silva's death.
On the contrary, the report clearly states that none of those injuries could be considered fatal.
Only in the report's explanation of "how the injury occurred" is there a hint that police actions may have been a factor.
The single line cites two factors: "substance abuse" and "a sequelae of properly applied restraint procedures."
Medical dictionaries define sequelae as abnormal conditions or consequences that follow and are the result of a disease, treatment or injury.
DEAD BY HEART DISEASE?
David Cohn, the attorney for the Silva family, expressed skepticism about the autopsy findings.
The day the autopsy results were released, Cohn told The Californian he would ask an independent expert to examine the report. But an independent autopsy is impossible, he noted, as Silva's remains have been cremated.
"So far we've received a one-sided version from the sheriff's department," Cohn said. "I want to hear from someone else."
Some have long worried that combining the sheriff's department with the coroner's office could lead to, at the very least, the appearance that the two entities are working hand in glove.
The coroner's office and the sheriff's department were combined in 1995 by the Kern County Board of Supervisors. Since that time, independent contracted pathologists like Carpenter have been exclusively used to conduct autopsies, said sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt.
Bakersfield defense attorney Fred Gagliardini, who is not connected to the Silva case, is skeptical of the autopsy report as well.
According to the autopsy, when Silva was awakened by the first deputy on the scene that night, Silva got up on his knees, then fell flat on his face. Gagliardini wondered how formidable such a man could be against more than a half dozen officers.
He also questioned how the coroner could come to the conclusion that all restraint procedures were "properly applied."
There's a fundamental issue with the Silva case, Gagliardini said. It started with a sleeping, intoxicated man who may have had heart problems but ended up dead only after being contacted by deputies.
"He got dead when you were trying to help him," Gagliardini said. "I don't see how that helped."
Los Angeles attorney Howard R. Price, who is not connected to the Silva case, said the use of the hobble, a strap that secures the ankles of a combative person, and then is connected to the wrists behind the back in what is commonly called a hogtie position, "should be rarely used, if ever."
Price won a $250,000 settlement last year after 30-year-old Tamara Gaglione was stopped on the side of a freeway by CHP officers for talking on her cell phone. Gaglione, who was two months pregnant at the time, was slammed to the ground and placed in a hobble restraint, although on the CHP's own dashcam video, she appears not to be resisting.
"This practice is fraught with injury and death," Price said of the hobble restraint, because it can severely restrict the breathing of the arrestee, especially obese or intoxicated persons and those who may be suffering from an episode related to mental illness.
The Kern County Sheriff's Office said it will no longer comment on the Silva case. The department provided a copy of its policies and procedures governing the use of the hobble in response to a public records request.
According to the department's guidelines, the hobble 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 hobble is particularly appropriate in those cases where the person is resisting the officers' efforts by kicking at the officers or violently thrashing his/her legs," the policy states.
Neither the sheriff nor the autopsy indicated how long Silva was restrained in the hobble device.
Silva's autopsy report uses the description "acute intoxication" to describe Silva's condition when he died. His blood alcohol level was 0.095, over the limit for driving a motor vehicle, but certainly not close to a toxic level.
The autopsy also found methamphetamine and amphetamine, both stimulants, in Silva's blood.
Marvin Pietruszka, a forensic pathologist and toxicologist in Southern California, said it's not possible to provide a good quality analysis of an autopsy report through a telephone interview. It's important, he said, to understand that pathologists are interpreting information and forming an opinion based on their knowledge and experience.
"There are many facets to the puzzle," he said.
In general, he said, the information gathered in an autopsy and postmortem interviews "is subject to interpretation."
"You don't really know what happened," he said. "You just try to piece it together."
Some opinions by pathologists may be based on a 51 percent degree of comfort, while others may have an 80 percent or 90 percent level of certainty.
Pietruszka declined to comment on the level of drugs found in Silva's system. But according to information published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the level of meth in his blood appears to have been significant if not extreme.
Silva had 210 nanograms of methamphetamine per milliliter of blood, according to his toxicology report. Blood concentrations of 20 to 50 nanograms per milliliter are typical for therapeutic use -- uses under a doctor's supervision -- but up to 200 nanograms per milliliter have been documented, according to the traffic safety administration.
Concentrations greater than this represent abuse, the NHTSA report says. Normal concentrations in recreational use are 10 to 2,500 nanograms per milliliter, with a median level of 600 nanograms, the report states.