Jury acquits nurse in 2019 jail death, unable to reach verdict for doctor
A nurse was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter Friday for the death of an inmate at a San Diego County women's jail, but jurors were unable to reach a verdict against a doctor also facing manslaughter charges in connection with the woman's death.
Following just over two days of deliberations, Danalee Pascua, 39, was found not guilty by an El Cajon jury of causing the Nov. 11, 2019, death of Elisa Serna at the Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee.
Jurors also voted 9-3 in favor of acquitting Friederike Von Lintig, 59, the physician on duty the day Serna died. Von Lintig will be back in court Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether prosecutors will retry the case against her.
Serna, 24, died shortly after she collapsed in her cell in the jail's medical observation unit.
Prosecutors argued Pascua left Serna on the floor of her cell for about an hour before summoning emergency medical personnel.
They also alleged Von Lintig provided substandard care for Serna, who they said was exhibiting obvious symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal, including frequent vomiting and seizures.
While her withdrawal symptoms were severe, Serna's condition could have been treated, prosecutors argued, yet she was often ignored or accused of faking her symptoms.
Serna died from what a county medical examiner determined were complications of chronic polysubstance abuse with a contributing factor of early intrauterine pregnancy.
Defense attorneys for both Von Lintig and Pascua argued their clients were being scrutinized with the benefit of hindsight.
Von Lintig's attorney, Dana Grimes, told jurors her client was working with an incomplete picture of Serna's condition while treating her. Grimes said Nov. 11 was the first day Von Lintig treated Serna and that she never witnessed any of Serna's seizure symptoms or instances of vomiting.
Pascua's attorney, Alicia Freeze, said the nurse was following standard nursing protocol and that according to testimony from medical experts, Serna's position lying on the floor and against the wall did not play a role in her death.
In the early afternoon of Nov. 11, Von Lintig and others responded to Serna's cell after she began exhibiting seizure-like symptoms while in a wheelchair.
Deputy District Attorney John Dunlap alleged that after examining Serna, Von Lintig "did next to nothing" in terms of treating her, other than order that Serna to remain under observation in the medical observation unit, rather than go back to the jail's general population.
Hours later, Serna suffered another seizure that led nurses to call for Von Lintig's assistance, Dunlap said. But the doctor never responded to Serna's cell and instead left the jail for the day as her shift came to a close.
A few hours later, Pascua's shift started and while attempting to take Serna's vital signs in her cell, Serna collapsed, struck her head against the wall, and began experiencing yet another seizure.
Dunlap alleged Pascua didn't finish taking Serna's vital signs after her collapse.
Instead, he said, she left the cell and sat at a nursing station situated a few feet away for the next hour, during which time Serna lay on the floor with her head slumped forward and propped up against the wall, and urinated herself.
Pascua later noticed Serna was pale and didn't appear to be breathing, at which point emergency medical personnel were summoned. She was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
While Von Lintig and Pascua were the only people charged among the medical professionals and sheriff's deputies who encountered Serna in her final days, Dunlap acknowledged that jurors may feel that others might be responsible or that there were "many failures" among those entrusted with Serna's care.
"No one deserves any awards for their conduct in this case," Dunlap said.
The case represented a rare instance of criminal charges brought against medical providers in connection with an inmate's death.
Von Lintig and Pascua's licenses were suspended as a result and the state medical board also filed an accusation against another doctor who treated Serna at the jail.
The high rate of deaths at San Diego County jails has drawn criticism and scrutiny from the public and officials, with the California State Auditor publishing a scathing report in 2022 that stated the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's policies and practices regarding inmate care were deficient.
Serna's family is also among many others that have sued the county in connection with a loved one's in-custody death. Their civil case remains ongoing in San Diego federal court.