Union-Tribune, CBS 8 seek to intervene in Serna case in effort to unseal jail-death records, exhibits

In the five years since Elisa Serna died alone on the floor of her cell at Las Colinas Women’s Prison, San Diego County authorities have refused to release video and other evidence showing what happened to the pregnant 24-year-old in her final hours. .

Even though a doctor and a nurse have been criminally charged in connection with Serna’s death – and some of the videos have been shown in open court – San Diego County lawyers have insisted that the documents remain hidden from public view.

The San Diego Union-Tribune and CBS News 8 are now seeking to intervene in the civil suit filed by Serna’s family to ask a federal judge to overturn an earlier decision to seal the evidence and make it available to the public .

“The court should permit the proposed media presenters to intervene for the limited purpose of seeking to unseal the evidence used in the parties’ briefs (court records),” states the motion submitted this week to U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns .

“Plaintiffs agreed not to oppose this motion, while each of the defendants disagreed,” the filing adds.

Lora Cicalo, editor of the Union-Tribune, said the evidence in question was presented in open court and is clearly part of the public record.

“This order, if upheld, would set a dangerous precedent that could lead other judges to be more willing to block media access to court records and evidence in the future,” Cicalo said.

San Diego County declined to comment on news organizations’ request to intervene in the matter.

Paloma Serna, the deceased’s mother, said transparency is essential to any legal proceedings and that the public has the right to access all relevant information that would help them better understand the case.

“It is important to me that the records and evidence be made available to the public so they can form an opinion based on factual and complete information,” she told the Union-Tribune. “Elisa Serna deserves justice, as do the other affected families. »

Serna died Nov. 11, 2019, five days after being arrested on theft and drug charges, according to the sheriff’s department. She told jail staff when she was booked that she had used heroin within the past two hours but had not been properly treated for her withdrawal symptoms, according to court records.

After hitting her head as she collapsed on the floor of her cell, Serna was left alone and found dead an hour later, records show.

Serna was one of 16 people to die in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department in 2019. Dozens have since died in San Diego County jails.

According to a 2022 state audit, 185 people died in San Diego County jails between 2006 and 2020, giving the system one of the highest death rates in the state. The audit recommended a series of changes within the sheriff’s department.

The Serna family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2020.

Dr. Fredericke Von Lintig (left) and his attorney Dana Grimes appear in court at the El Cajon Courthouse on Wednesday, October 26, 2022. Prosecutors dropped their criminal case against the doctor following the death of Elisa Serna after a jury failed to reach an agreement. verdict.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A hearing on the issue of unsealing was scheduled for Friday even before news organizations sought to intervene in the matter. Lawyers for the Serna family will argue for unsealing the evidence, but it is unclear when the judge will issue his ruling.

The motion filed by the Union-Tribune and CBS 8 requests a May 6 hearing.

San Diego County has so far successfully argued that much of the video evidence, depositions and interviews in the Serna case should remain sealed thanks to criminal charges filed against county doctor Friederike Von Lintig and nurse Danalee Pascua.

But these criminal cases are now over.

Pascua was acquitted of manslaughter earlier this year. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the same charge against Von Lintig and prosecutors decided not to pursue a second trial.

San Diego County has a history of withholding records from plaintiffs suing the government over jail deaths or injuries suffered by people at the hands of sheriff’s deputies.

According to other documents filed in the Serna family’s long-running civil case, some of the files supposedly sealed may have been viewed by one of the family’s lawyers during a routine visit to the palace Court of El Cajon after the conclusion of the criminal case.

“When I requested photocopies of the contents of the criminal files, the Superior Court clerk did not ask me for identification,” wrote Serna’s lawyer, Grace Jun, in a declaration filed on 20 March to the Federal Court.

“She didn’t ask me for a court order,” Jun added. “She did not inform me that the transcripts of the interview with Pascua or with Von Lintig were confidential and under seal.”

California Daily Newspapers

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