Paso teen accused of sledgehammer attack claims self-defense

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJuly 18, 2013 

A Paso Robles teen who allegedly endured months of threats could become a convicted felon after hitting his mother’s boyfriend in the head with a sledgehammer last fall.

Yet, an attorney for Justin Michael Silveira, 18, said his client only swung the hammer after the boyfriend physically attacked Silveira and his mother and then threatened him with a martial arts stance.

“There is no question that Justin believed that he was going to kill his mom or him or both,” said Ilan Funke-Bilu. “He had talked about killing them in the past.”

The District Attorney’s Office, however, has charged Silveira with attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon, saying he overreacted when he hit 57-year-old Robert Willis in the back of the head, nearly killing him.

Silveira, who was 18 at the time of the incident, could get up to a decade or more in prison if convicted.

“Self-defense requires no more force than is usually necessary,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran. “And that’s the issue in this case.”

In the wake of the controversial George Zimmerman verdict in Florida, the Silveira case will test California’s own self-defense law. Silveira, who will appear in court next week for a trial-setting conference, is currently out of jail on bail. While Silveira faces several years in prison if convicted, witnesses say Willis, who suffered a depressed skull fracture, was the aggressor on Sept. 6, 2012.

California law declares a person who commits an act of violence not guilty if he believed he or someone else was in danger, believed imminent force was necessary to prevent that danger and used no more force than necessary.

After paramedics responded to a 911 call on Sept. 6, Silveira, his mother and grandmother initially said Willis had fallen. But Willis’ daughter told police that nurses at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center did not believe the injuries were consistent with a fall, so police re-interviewed the family.

In further interviews, the witnesses said the following occurred: Willis was angry at Silveira for not cleaning his room and asked Silveira if he had a problem with him. At some point, Willis shoved and choked Silveira. When Silveira’s mother tried to intervene, Willis shoved and hit her. As Willis took a Taekwondo stance, Silveira grabbed a sledgehammer and warned him to stop. His mother and grandmother yelled “No!” as Silveira swung the hammer, hitting Willis on the left, back side of the head.

Silveira said Willis was snoring before he hit the ground.

Police later found what they believed to be the weapon at the home. Meanwhile, Silveira’s mother showed police bruising above both eyes.

Funke-Bilu said Willis had often bragged about his martial arts prowess. And for months, he had threatened Silveira, promising to “beat his ass” when Silveira turned 18.

“From all reports, Mr. Willis was a real nice guy when he was sober,” Funke-Bilu said.

When the argument began, he said, his client was sober, but Willis was not.

As the confrontation intensified, Silveira remembered the previous threats and Willis’ boasts about being proficient in karate when he went for the long-handled sledgehammer.

“I think it shows you how scared my client was,” he said. “He had to defend himself immediately, and that was the only thing around.”

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