A seven-year legal saga involving a Redwood City man's vehicular manslaughter conviction for the death of an 8-year-old girl will drag on.

A divided California Supreme Court on Thursday effectively restored Richard Tom's conviction for the February 2007 fatal crash but ordered a state appeals court to revisit the complex legal questions that have plagued the case for years. As a result, the outcome will remain in doubt, although the state's high court made Tom's appeal tougher to win.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the conclusion of the 1st District Court of Appeal, which two years ago reversed Tom's conviction because prosecutors improperly argued that his silence after the accident incriminated him and thus violated his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the majority, found there was insufficient proof Tom took the necessary steps to invoke that privilege, instructing the lower courts to re-examine the question.

Tom, 52, was sentenced to seven years in prison for vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence for slamming his Mercedes into a family's vehicle in 2007, killing Sydney Ng and seriously injuring her 10-year-old sister. At trial, prosecutors alleged Tom was drunk when he collided with the Ngs' Nissan Maxima at an intersection in Redwood City, but a jury cleared him of alcohol-related charges.


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The appeal hinged on the fact prosecutors urged the jury in closing arguments to convict because Tom refused to talk to police or ask about the family's welfare after the accident. Tom has been free on $300,000 bail since the appeals court overturned his conviction two years ago.

Marc Zilversmit, Tom's lawyer, said he is weighing whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, or first seek further review in the California courts. The American Civil Liberties Union backed Tom in the state Supreme Court.

Justice Goodwin Liu dissented in Thursday's ruling, siding with the appeals court and Tom's position.

"The court today holds, against common sense expectations, that remaining silent after being placed under arrest is not enough to exercise one's right to remain silent," Liu wrote.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar also dissented but only because she determined Tom had never raised the question in the trial court and the case should not have been reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz