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Videos, other evidence released in 2019 Las Colinas jail death case

Michael and Paloma Serna stand outside the courtroom in El Cajon where a preliminary hearing was held for the medical staff from Las Colinas Detention Center who were charged with her death.
Kitty Alvarado
Michael and Paloma Serna stand outside the courtroom in El Cajon where a preliminary hearing was held for the medical staff from Las Colinas Detention Center who were charged with her death.

A trove of evidence was publicly released this week in the case of a woman's in-custody death at the Las Colinas jail in Santee, including multiple videos depicting what occurred inside the jail during her final days, prompting San Diego County Sheriff Kelly Martinez to issue a statement defending the department's record on improvements to the jail system.

The release of videos and thousands of pages of court documents regarding the death of 24-year-old Elisa Serna was ordered earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns, who has overseen portions of the civil case brought by Serna's family against San Diego County, former Sheriff Bill Gore and various jail employees.

Serna died shortly after she collapsed in her cell in the jail's medical observation unit on Nov. 11, 2019, five days after she was booked into the jail. Her family alleges jail deputies and medical staff failed to properly care for Serna, who was pregnant and exhibiting symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal, including frequent vomiting and seizures.


Some of the newly released videos have previously been played in open court during a criminal trial held earlier this year for a doctor and nurse charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Serna's death.

On Wednesday, Martinez said the sheriff's department has taken steps to address concerns regarding the rate of in-custody deaths within the county jail system and has worked to improve conditions for people in custody.

"The video and other evidence in this case is disturbing and the actions of some staff on that day do not reflect the values of the Sheriff's Department," Martinez said in a statement. "Since becoming sheriff last year, I have made substantial changes improving the conditions in our county's jails. Those changes are ongoing, and I am committed to seeing them through."

To that end, Martinez said that the Medication-Assisted Treatment program, which supports inmates suffering from substance use disorder, has been expanded, and jail staff conduct medical and mental health screenings for everyone booked into jail so that withdrawal protocols and other services can be initiated immediately. Last year, the department also announced increased efforts to prevent drugs from entering the jails and a 10-year plan to upgrade and modernize the county's jail facilities.

Martinez said, "I expect sheriff's employees and our contractors to provide high quality care to all individuals in our jails and will hold accountable those who fail to meet the high standards of our core values, our policies and the expectations of the public we serve."


Serna's mother, Paloma Serna, has been pushing for the public release of the videos as her family's lawsuit against the county draws closer to trial.

In a statement released shortly after Burns' ruling, she said, "The public has the right to know what truly happened to her in those five days in the (medical observation unit), in Las Colinas. This is a big victory because this has opened doors for other families to know what happened to their loved ones and have those responsible for their deaths be held accountable."

Much of the material was originally kept under seal because the criminal case against nurse Danalee Pascua and Dr. Friederike Von Lintig was still in progress. Their trial concluded in February, with Pascua acquitted and Von Lintig's case dismissed after jurors voted 9-3 in favor of acquitting her. They remain defendants in the civil case.

Attorneys representing San Diego County and the other defendants had argued to keep the items under seal for various reasons, including that releasing the videos could compromise jail security.

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