El Cajon Jury Acquits Nurse, Split on Verdict for Doctor in Inmate Death at Santee Facility

El Cajon Jury Acquits Nurse, Split on Verdict for Doctor in Inmate Death at Santee FacilitySource: Google Street View
Ben J. Costas
Published on February 10, 2024

An El Cajon jury acquitted nurse Danalee Pascua on charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the 2019 death of an inmate. Still, they were split on a verdict for the doctor implicated in the case. The decision came after more than two days of deliberations, as FOX 5 San Diego reported. Pascua, 39, was cleared in the death of 24-year-old Elisa Serna at the Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee. At the same time, the jury remained hung regarding the charges against Dr. Friederike Von Lintig, 59, whose case could be retried.

The jury voted 9-3 in favor of acquitting Von Lintig, and she is due to appear next Wednesday for a hearing to determine the prosecution's next steps, as stated by NBC San Diego. Serna's 2019 death, caused by complications of chronic polysubstance abuse, with a contributing factor of early intrauterine pregnancy, has since raised questions about the care and handling of inmates within San Diego County jails, a concern underscored by a 2022 state audit report citing deficiencies in the Sheriff's Department's policies and practices.

Prosecutors in the trial alleged that both Pascua and Von Lintig had been negligent in Serna's care while she exhibited symptoms of withdrawal, such as seizures and vomiting. According to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, they hold the "utmost respect for the jury's decision" and remain sympathetic to the family of Elisa Serna. Despite Pascua's acquittal, the lawsuit filed by Serna's family against the county is ongoing.

In response to the verdict, Serna’s mother, Paloma Serna, told FOX 5 that for her family, it is a "daily fight to just get the justice that she needs." Notwithstanding the emotional plea of a mother's struggle, the case casts a spotlight on the dangerous precipice upon which the balance of justice teeters, serving as a reflective surface for the inherent conflicts of the carceral system when met with the frailty of human health. Von Lintig's attorney, Dana Grimes, argued her client was unaware of the full scope of Serna’s condition, marking November 11 as the first day the doctor began treating her, a detail that adds to the complicated mosaic of health care behind bars.

The cases against medical practitioners have gained attention as they represent a rare instance where healthcare providers face criminal charges in relation to an inmate's demise. Further, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department has been scrutinized for an unusually high rate of in-custody deaths, including the scathing 2022 report from the California State Auditor that criticized its inmate care policies. Though two individuals faced the courtroom's scrutinizing gaze, prosecutors acknowledged, as NBC San Diego captured, that "many failures" could be found among those tasked with her wellbeing, gesturing to a collective shortcoming that remains without full redress.