When we think about crime, it’s usually in black and white terms: good and bad, right and wrong, cop and criminal. As it turns out, life is often a lot messier than that. Upon closer examination, people sometimes make mistakes for very understandable reasons—reasons that may require some lenience when it comes to punishment. Although we don’t typically expect the justice system to be particularly understanding or forgiving to individual circumstances, sometimes it surprises us.
That was the case for a man named Joe Serna.
The story began in a North Carolina courtroom, where Serna was appearing on charges of drunk driving.
The judge hearing his case was Judge Lou Olivera. After considering everything, Serna was given probation, one stipulation of which was that he was not allowed to drink. For anyone in the habit of drinking, however, it’s not always so simple to completely stop—even if you’re being regularly drug tested. As it turns out, it wasn’t long before Serna found himself the courtroom again in violation of his probation.
Serna had failed a urine test, proving that he’d been drinking again.
Although Olivera seemingly had an affinity for Serna, he knew that he’d have to give him a harder punishment this time.
According to Olivera, he knew what had to be done:
“I gave Joe a night in jail because he had to be held accountable.”
Still, though the punishment was only to spend one night in jail, that experience would prove particularly trying for Serna given his background. That’s because Serna was a retired sergeant in the United States Army and a Green Beret. While doing a tour of Afghanistan, Serna had been in extreme circumstances which had given him a fear of enclosed spaces.
It all happened when Serna was driving in a truck with several other soldiers which drove over a landmine.
As it happened, Serna says the experience was a lot less clear and a lot more terrifying:
“We were following the creek and the road gave way. And the vehicle went into the creek.”
Serna felt himself trapped in the car as water was rising all around him, first past his legs, then his waist, then even his neck. It finally stopped just short of his chin, leaving him as the only soldier to walk away from the accident alive. As a result of his experience, Serna developed PTSD and sometimes revisited those moments.
Although Olivera had sentenced Serna to a night in jail, he knew the man’s background and decided to do something unusual.
Serna says that as soon as he got into the jail cell, the bad feelings started coming back:
“When I walked into the jail cell and they closed the door behind me, I started feeling this anxiety. It came back, a flashback.”
Fortunately, only a few minutes after he was in the cell, Olivera himself showed up to keep Serna company. Much of Serna’s drinking-related behavior was a way to cope with his PTSD, a fact that Olivera knew:
“I knew what Joe was going through and I knew Joe’s history. And he had to be held accountable but I just felt I had to go with him. I felt I had to go with him.”
The two men stayed in the jail cell together the entire night.
During that time, they talked about their families, ate meatloaf together and generally bonded with one another. The entire experience together made the whole thing more comfortable and more bearable, according to Serna:
“The walls didn’t exist anymore. He brought me back to North Carolina from being in a truck in Afghanistan.”
After their experience together, Serna promised Olivera in the courtroom that he wouldn’t let him down again.
At the end of everything, it was clear that this was not just another case of criminal justice. The experience the two men had had together had transformed the both of them. As this case shows, there are often complex factors behind any decision that a person makes. Sometimes even the worst mistakes can be understandable when we have more background information and we open our hearts to others.
Special thanks to Judge Olivera for his compassion and his creative approach to justice!
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