A North Carolina judge recently sentenced a veteran suffering from PTSD to spend 24 hours in jail but decided to keep him company in his cell for the entire sentence.
According to WRAL, District Court Judge Lou Olivera was legally obligated to punish Special Forces veteran Joseph Serna for violating his probation but wanted to ensure that the former soldier was treated with respect and compassion. Judge Olivera runs the Cumberland County's Veterans Treatment Court, which deals with veterans like Serna who have trouble with the law in between deployment and after retirement.
Joseph Serna has been struggling to maintain his sobriety since leaving the Special Forces and was brought to the treatment program after being charged with a DWI. He suffers from PTSD and claims he drinks alcohol to subdue the traumatic memories from the battlefield.
"I've lost a lot of friends and I take my bumps as well and I didn't want to talk about it," said the veteran.
According to local news ABC 11, Serna admitted to lying about the results of a urine test, which forced Judge Olivera to follow-through with a jail sentence.
"I had never been to jail before," Serna said.
While the Veterans Treatment Court is designed to handle cases of repeat offenders and veterans who "keep on appearing in the court system for particular reasons," Judge Olivera did not want to give up on Joseph Serna. He understood what the veteran was going through, having served in the military himself, and knew that Serna's legal trouble was the result of post-traumatic stress. Simply locking him up in a cold cell as a punishment did not seem like the right decision to the judge.
"When they close that door, it's really, you are shut off. I had a more palpable understanding of the issues Joe was going through."
Olivera revealed that Joseph Serna was brave enough to turn himself in for violating his probation. He showed up to the court trembling. That's when Olivera decided to go the extra mile for the veteran and join him for the entire jail sentence. He drove to the Robeson County jail and found Joseph Serna alone in the cell, sitting on the cot. Judge Olivera opened the cell door and sat next to him.
"The judge comes in," said Serna, "and so we're sitting there and they lock the door and I realized, oh, we're going to stay the night. He's going to stay the night here with me."
And that's exactly what the judge did.
"I do know that many veterans would have done the same," said Olivera. "They would have gotten in the hole to help. And so did I."
#GoodGuy of the day, week, month and year: District Court Judge Lou Olivera... https://t.co/DLx0Ie6zNCThe two men reportedly spent the better part of the 24-hour sentence talking about their experiences serving in the military, for better or worse. Joseph Serna claims Judge Olivera was not condescending to the veteran about his mistakes, they instead shared a conversation of mutual respect.
— Ricky Stevens (@rickstevensblue) April 23, 2016
"It was more of a father-son conversation as opposed to a judge talking to someone and sentencing them. It was personal."Ultimately, Olivera is hoping that the compassion he showed for the decorated but troubled veteran will be the boost he needs to get his life back on track. The North Carolina judge has never spent the night in prison with anyone else he's sentenced, which shows a special dedication to a tragic case like Joseph Serna's. And while Olivera isn't sure he'd ever do it again, his primary interest as a veterans' court judge is helping them get back to a normal life.
"They have worn the uniform and we know they can be contributing members of society. We just want to get them back there," said Olivera.
The judge's actions have been noticed by many people on the internet who are grateful that someone in the justice system understands what veterans are going through, even if they have trouble with the law.
Thank you Judge Lou Olivera for caring about veterans with PTS and reminding everyone that it's #okaytosay. https://t.co/ZtNsINCg15What do you think about the judge's amazing act of compassion? Would you be willing to spend an entire day in jail just to help out a veteran?
— Okay to Say (@OkaytoSayTX) April 25, 2016
[Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images]