By Miriam Raftery
Photo courtesy of ECM news partner 10 News: Elisa Serna’s supporters want to know why so many deaths have occurred in San Diego jails.
February 9, 2024 (San Diego) – A jury has acquitted Danalee Pascua, a nurse accused of involuntary manslaughter in the November 2019 death of Elisa Serna, a pregnant inmate at the Las Colinas Detention Center in Santee. Charges against a second defendant, Dr. Friederike Von Lintig, resulted in a hung jury, with 9 jurors voting for acquittal and 3 against. A hearing next Wednesday will determine whether prosecutors will seek to retry his case.
Serna was suffering severe drug withdrawal symptoms, including vomiting and seizures, yet was left on the floor of her cell. Prosecutors say she had been accused of faking symptoms.
Prosecutors alleged that Pascua left Serna on her cell room floor for around an hour before summoning medical personnel, despite symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal including vomiting and seizures. In the medical observation unit, prosecutors say Dr. Von Lintig did “next to nothing” to treat her symptoms even after she suffered a seizure in a wheelchair, and that she could have been saved had he done so. The defense claims the doctor never witnessed any seizures.
Hours later, Serna suffered another seizure, prompting a call to the doctor, but he never responded and left the jail at the end of his shift.
More hours went by, and when Pascua’s next shift began, she tried to take Serna’s vital signs in her cell, but Serna collapsed and struck her head on the cell room wall, suffering yet another seizure. The prosecution claimed the nurse left her cell and left Serna on the floor, propped against the wall with her head slumped forward, for another hour.
Nurse Pascua later found Serna had stopped breathing, and emergency personnel were unable to revive her. The medical examiner found she died from complications of substance abuse, with early pregnancy also a factor.
Deputy District Attorney said jurors may have believed others, including Sheriff’s deputies, might be partially responsible and felt there were “many failures” among those responsible for Serna’s care, 10 News reports.
Both Pascua and Von Lintig had their license suspended. The state medical board also filed an accusation against an additional doctor who treated Serna at the jail, though only Pascua and Von Lintig were charged.
Serna’s family has sued the County over her death. Their civil case remains pending in federal court.
The San Diego Sheriff’s department has issued a statement which reads in part, “We have the utmost respect for the jury's decision as well as the judicial process, and the efforts of everyone who worked on this case. Providing for the security and safety of those in our custody, and those working in our facilities are amongst the highest priorities for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. We continue to offer our sympathies to Elisa Serna's family and those affected by her death.”
The high rate of deaths at San Diego County jails has scrutiny from the public and officials. The California State Auditor publishing a scathing report in 2022, when Bill Gore was sheriff, that stated the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's policies and practices regarding inmate care were deficient.
Newly elected Sheriff Kelly Martinez has implemented many reforms, yet some deaths continue to occur, including three so far this year.