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Family of woman who died in Las Colinas detention center gets their day in court

Nearly four years after 24-year-old Elisa Serna died at Las Colinas Detention Center, a preliminary hearing for Doctor Friederike Von Lintig and nurse Danalee Pascua was held Monday at the San Diego County Superior Court in El Cajon.

Serna was in custody on a charge of petty theft, and was having drug withdrawals inside the jail cell that was supposed to be under medical supervision.

Von Lintig and Pascua are charged with involuntary manslaughter and have pleaded not guilty.


There was a rally outside the courthouse before Monday’s hearing, with activists shouting familiar chants: "Justice for Elisa Serna! Justice for Elisa Serna," yelled Michael Serna, Elisa's father. He drove to San Diego from Montana with his wife, two daughters and grandchild to attend what's expected to be a weeklong hearing.

Paloma Serna, Elisa’s mother, said the day had been a long time coming. "It’s an exciting moment. We’ve been waiting since 2019 to get the truth out to the public," she said through a hesitant smile that showed her pain.

The Sernas were joined by a group that gathers whenever there's a hearing or press conference for someone who died in a San Diego County jail: the Saving Lives in Custody Campaign. The group was founded after Serna's death and has grown to include families whose loved ones have died in jail in San Diego county and now other counties.

Elisa Serna was one of 16 people to die in San Diego County jail custody in 2019. Last year, there were 20 in-custody deaths in the county.

A 2022 state audit found inmate deaths in San Diego County jails ranked among the highest in California for the previous 15 years, and authorities consistently failed to address the problem.


"So many names, the list goes on and on. We have to make sure that this list does not grow and that's what we're here for," said Yusef Miller, founder of the Saving Lives in Custody Campaign.

The campaign shares its name with the Saving Lives In Custody Act authored last year by Assembly Member Akilah Weber, D-79. That measure was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and during Monday’s rally, Michael Serna called the governor out on it.

"We need change, Gov. Newsom. You need to stop just letting it go on as usual," Serna yelled. "A good old boys club."

In court filings, prosecutors accuse Von Lintig and Pascua of negligence in dealing with Elisa Serna, whose mother said she wants the world to see what she saw: video evidence of how her pregnant daughter died in a San Diego County jail cell, with no one coming to help her. Serna said officials originally told the Serna family Elisa died of a drug overdose.

"I lay awake in bed every night whispering the words I would love for her to hear, but she can't come back and she can't hear me."
Michael Serna, father of Elisa Serna

Paloma Serna's description of the video is disturbing: "What we're going to see is Elisa being neglected and dying in her cell today with the nurse walking away, leaving her there to die," she said. "And also the activity outside of the cell, where numerous people saw her laying on the floor, and she could have been saved if someone would have just took the initiative and went in there or even called 911, but none of that happened. She lay dying in her urine for a whole hour."

While that video may be seen in the courtroom, it will not be seen in news coverage. Judge Selena Epley ruled that cameras would not be allowed in the courtroom, to the disappointment of the Serna family.

The hearing will include testimony from as many as 17 witnesses. At the end of it, the judge will decide whether there's enough evidence for the pair to stand trial, and if there is, set a trial date.

If convicted, Von Lintig and Pascua each face four years in prison. The Serna family said that sentence is too lenient. They also say more people should be charged with Elisa’s death and the death of her unborn baby.

"I always will believe that even after we get justice, I always will, I'll die with that, knowing that yes, there could be more," said Paloma.

Elisa's father said that in public he is strong and steadfast fighting for justice for his daughter. But when he’s alone with her memory it’s a different story.

"I'm sorry, I can't," he said as he paused to hold back his tears. "I lay awake in bed every night whispering the words I would love for her to hear, but she can't come back and she can't hear me."

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.