The Judge Who Intentionally Sent an Innocent Man to Jail

A few years ago, a North Carolina man named Joe Serna was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He wasn’t sentenced to prison, though. As the Washington Post reported, Serna was “a former Special Forces soldier did four combat tours in Afghanistan over a nearly two-decades-long career with the U.S. Army” who, during his years in the Army, “Serna was almost killed three times: once, by a roadside bomb, then again by a suicide bomber,” and once when his armored truck flipped over into a canal. That last near-death experience was specifically traumatic — of the four soldiers in the truck, he was the only one to survive. Serna has three Purple Hearts to his name, but he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and since his retirement from the Army, has struggled to transition into civilian life.

When Serna was charged with DWI, the court realized that incarceration may not be the best solution. Instead, as ABC 11 North Carolina reported, received a probation sentence. He joined a veteran’s treatment court program that required him to appear before a judge every two weeks, give up drinking, and submit to court-directed alcohol testing. As of April 2016, Serna had appeared in front of the same judge — District Court Judge Lou Olivera — a total of 25 times, reviewing the fortnight just past each time. But the mid-April meeting came with a confession. Per a local news report, Serna admitted that previously, “he didn’t tell the truth about his urinalysis test.” Judge Olivera’s hands were tied — Serna had violated his probation — and he sentenced Serna to 24 hours in the county jail.

If that is how the story ended, no one would be surprised. But Judge Olivera wasn’t through with Serna. 

For Serna, a night in jail was worse than it would be for many others. As he told the Washington Post, “When I walked into the jail cell, and they closed the door behind me, I started feeling this anxiety. It came back — a flashback” of that day when his armored truck fell into that canal. So Judge Olivera — a former Green Beret — decided that Serna wasn’t the only person going to jail that night. Olivera decided to send an innocent man to jail to keep Serna company. That innocent person? Judge Olivera himself.

The pair spent the night mostly talking about their families, and per CBS, they shared some meatloaf. But the menu and topics of conversation weren’t the important part. For Serna, the conversation itself gave him a new outlook on life. The duo sat down with NPR and StoryCorps, and Serna told Olivera that their night in a one-person jail cell “was the first time I ever opened. To trust another person was a game-changer. So thank you for being there for me. It means a lot to have someone in your position that understands.” Serna, a week later, appeared before the judge again. Per CBS, he told Olivera that he’d not break the terms of his probation again: “I don’t want to let you down, ever.”

Bonus fact: The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” is widely considered to be a modern classic; it has a 93% critics rating and 95% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 4.2 stars on Letterboxd, and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (earning five wins including Best Director). But if you’re a war veteran, you may want to avoid it. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Steven Spielberg’s Private Ryan has been praised by critics for its unflinchingly accurate depiction of the confusion and carnage of war. But that very authenticity, experts have warned, has the potential to trigger long-buried memories in those who have endured combat, be it World War II or Vietnam.” To help those suffering, the Department of Veteran Affairs set up a toll-free support hotline; within two weeks after the film’s opening, the hotline received more than 170 calls.

From the Archives: The Holbrook Holiday: Another judge with an interesting take on sentencing.