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Judge Orders Evaluation for Molester

Ventura County

Law: Prison sentence for Ventura County attorney, who admitted to lewd conduct with girl, is withheld until a study is conducted.

June 13, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorney Robert Silver made an appearance in a Ventura County courtroom Wednesday afternoon, but not as an officer of the court.

Instead, Silver, who has practiced law in the county for 36 years, was taken into custody and sent to state prison for molesting a girl three decades ago in his law office and at his Ojai home.

"This man is a criminal," the victim, now 41, testified during an hourlong sentencing hearing in which she described how Silver, now 67, repeatedly fondled and sexually assaulted her starting when she was 5.

"I begged him as a child to stop," she told the court. "Put this man in jail, please."

But Superior Court Judge Bruce Clark declined to impose the maximum eight-year prison sentence sought by prosecutors Wednesday.

Instead, Clark sent Silver to the California Department of Corrections for a 90-day psychological evaluation, saying he needed additional information before handing down a final ruling.

Dressed in a sports jacket, brown pants and cowboy boots, Silver, who has no previous criminal record and is still a practicing attorney, was handcuffed by deputies and led to a holding cell. His sister and church pastor watched from the courtroom gallery.

Outside court, the victim, a Redondo Beach resident, sighed and said the judge's decision was par for the course.

She has spent the last decade trying to bring Silver to justice, first filing a civil suit against him in Orange County Superior Court and then seeking criminal charges after state lawmakers changed a law to allow certain sexual assault cases to be filed after the statute of limitations has expired.

In court Wednesday, attorneys made reference to the unusual path that Silver's case has taken.

The civil complaint was filed in 1991 and took nine years to litigate. Silver, advised by his lawyer that he could not be prosecuted because the three-year statute of limitations on lewd acts with a child had run out, admitted in depositions and at trial to fondling the girl, according to court records. Silver denied, and still does, that more serious sexual conduct occurred.

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that the truth was probably somewhere in between the testimony offered by Silver and the victim, but ruled in her favor. She was awarded $450,000, which was later reduced to $200,000 to be doled out in monthly payments.

Meanwhile, as the civil case was pending, state lawmakers in 1994 enacted a law that under certain circumstances allows sex crimes to be revived after the statute of limitations has expired.

After that law was challenged as unconstitutional in court, revisions were made. In 1999, the California Supreme Court upheld the legislation after ruling that it did not violate constitutional principles.

When the victim in Silver's case read a newspaper article about the law, she contacted Ventura police and reported the alleged sexual abuse by Silver--34 years after it began.

"Be aware, some of us will gain our strength and our identity back," the victim wrote in a prepared statement this week. "And then we will hunt you like we were hunted."

In April 2000, Silver was charged with eight counts of lewd acts on a child and one count of forcible rape. After two years of legal challenges and delays, he pleaded guilty in April 2002 to five counts of lewd acts with a child.

At Wednesday's sentencing hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Nancy Ayers argued that after so many years, it was time for Silver to be punished for his crimes.

Ayers called it an egregious case and urged Clark to send Silver to state prison.

But Deputy Public Defender Todd Howeth argued that Silver is not a danger to the community and should be released on probation.

Howeth said his client is paying restitution through the civil judgment, probably will lose his license to practice law and will have to register as a sex offender.

"He is a broken man," Howeth said.

Clark asked the lawyers for more specific information about the sexual conduct that occurred.

But because there has not been a trial, or even a preliminary hearing on the matter, the facts remain in dispute. Clark ordered the 90-day study and made no further comment.

"We'll just have to wait and see," Ayers said after the hearing.

As of Wednesday, Silver remained in good standing with the State Bar of California and could continue to practice law. But bar association officials in Los Angeles confirmed late Wednesday that they had received written notice of Silver's convictions and were planning to forward the material today to an administrative judge, who was expected to temporarily suspend Silver's law license--by Friday--until a formal hearing can be held.

Bar spokeswoman Kathleen Beitiks said the suspension would have occurred closer to Silver's guilty pleas, but it took Ventura County court officials several weeks to prepare and mail documents.

Following the suspension, bar officials would conduct an investigation into Silver's case and schedule a hearing to determine the fate of his bar card. Penalties range from a reprimand to disbarment.

As he left the courthouse Wednesday, Pastor Lyn Thomas of the Wesleyan Church in Ojai said that Silver is not the predator portrayed in court.

Silver momentarily halted Wednesday's court proceedings to consult with the pastor behind closed doors.

"The man as you see sitting there in the courtroom," Thomas said, "is truly a different man from 20 or 25 years ago."

*

Times staff writer Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this story.

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