Judicial Compassion Can Save a Life

The former Special Forces Sergeant stood before the Veteran’s Treatment Court judge – as he had every two weeks since being charged with driving under the influence a year earlier — and admitted he had lied. His urinalysis test had come back positive but Sergeant Joe Serna had originally denied it.

Serna had been fighting internal demons ever since coming home after four bloody combat tours of Afghanistan and serving almost two decades in the military.

Serna was almost killed  least three times. Once when his team crossed paths with a suicide bomber, another when they were hit by a roadside bomb. But at this moment, something inside the Green Beret soldier made him ‘fess up to breaking his parole. Being stateside again had been both wonderful and a trigger for a severe case of post-traumatic stress.

Sgt. Joe Serna — A Judge Turned His Life Around

Cumberland County, North Carolina Judge Lou Olivera listened intently to the Sergeant’s admission then ruled that Serna, 41, must be punished. He sentenced the father of seven to spend a night in jail.

“When Joe first came to turn himself in, he was trembling,” Olivera told the Fayetteville Observer about the man who had been awarded three Purple Hearts for combat heroism. Being a combat veteran of the Gulf War himself the judge fully recognized the potential devastation lockup could case to someone suffering from PTSD. Olivera made a snap decision to drive Serna to the jail himself. But that wasn’t the end to his unusual judicial empathy.

Judge Lou Olivera Took A Unique Approach After Sentencing

Judge Lou Olivera — A Veteran Himself, Took A Unique Approach to Sentencing

“I decided that I’d spend the night serving with him,” the judge said. After Serna was processed and put in a cell Olivera followed.

“I knew this was a very compassionate man,” Serna said. “I know how involved he is with veterans, and he’s a veteran himself. I got chills when he walked in.”

In a cell meant for only one person the two men, like the combat soldiers they once were, hunkered down for the night. They talked for hours about their military service, their families and their futures.

“He gave me the bunk,” Serna said about the 45-year-old Olivera. “The judge took two … mats and slept on the floor.”

Their conversation continued in the car on their way home the next day. The Judge made a quick stop along the way and then personally delivered the medically retired veteran to his family. Serna’s wife, also a military veteran, was in disbelief when her husband told her details about his night in lock-up.

The Judge Encouraged Serna to Talk About the Past

The Judge Encouraged Serna to Talk About His Military Past

“I said, ‘No way,’” Rocio Serna told reporters. “The judge even bought doughnuts for the family when they came home.” She said since her husband has been under the jurisdiction of the Veteran’s Treatment Court she has seen positive changes in his behavior and mindset. She seems hopeful about their future.

This story makes me wonder about some other judges I’ve seen in action. Especially those who, without barely a glance up at the defendant, pronounce a ruling or a sentence and bang their gavel for the next case. Their goal seems to be to plow through the docket with little consideration for who stands before them. I get it. They are overworked. But there has to be a better way. Our jails and prisons are already filled to the max.

I wonder why regularly applied compassion can be found in Veteran Treatment Courts but not in other court divisions? I’m certainly not talking about extending sympathy to hardcore gangbangers or career criminals. But if a veteran is worth helping to return to society in a  meaningful way why isn’t a victim of domestic violence or substance abuse addiction who has found themselves standing before a judge? Surely, every person is important enough to warrant a modicum of attention, with the goal being to try to guide them into becoming a contributor to society.

Sergeant Joe Serna put it better than I ever could. As he looked back at the course correction his spiraling-out-of-control life had taken under the tutelage of Judge Olivera he said, “I cannot even put into words how I feel about him. I look at him as a father.”

“This by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody,” Serna said. “I will never let him down again.”

Proof positive that, at least in this case, the gift of time, conversation and bit of empathy can turn a life around.





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