When we think about crime, it’s usually in black and white terms: good and bad, right and wrong, cop and criminal. Unfortunately, justice is rarely served so simply when closely examined. Here’s a scenario: a man named Joe Serna was arrested for drunk driving and was served with probation. While still on probation later that next year, Serna was caught drinking. This broke his parole and he was sentenced to a night in jail. Simple enough, right? Still, this case turns out a little differently than you might expect.
The details of the case just described above took place in Bayetteville, North Carolina in the courtroom of Judge Joe Olivera. Olivera knew he had to serve Serna with a punishment for breaking his parole; still, he also knew the man’s history.
As it turns out, Serna is a decorated veteran with three tours of Afghanistan and two purple hearts under his belt. He also survived an IED attack and a suicide bombing. Still, scariest of all these moments was when he and his fellow soldiers were driving in a military vehicle and the road beneath them collapsed, pushing them into the creek they were driving alongside. The vehicle quickly started filling up with water. “All hope was lost,” Serna says.
The water rose up Serna’s body all the way to his chin before it finally stopped. Out of all the riders in the vehicle, he was the only one to make it out alive. As a result of this traumatic experience, Serna developed PTSD and claustrophobia which are still with him to this day.
Knowing all this, Olivera said that although Serna was in the wrong with regards to his parole, he understood his background and wanted to grant him some support. “He had to be held accountable,” he says, “but I just felt I had to go with him.” That’s right, Olivera waited out Serna’s sentence with him in the cell.
The two of them stayed awake throughout the entire night, eating meatloaf and connecting over family. “The walls didn’t exist anymore,” Serna says. “He brought me back to North Carolina from being in a truck in Afghanistan.” After it was all over, Serna and Olivera shared a touching, intimate moment in the courtroom the next day that is sure to bring a tear to your eye.
Above all, this story shows the importance of remembering our humanity when performing the hard work of civic justice. It would’ve been easy for Olivera to just “do his job,” hand out a sentence and not take any context into account. Instead, he went above and beyond to treat Serna with respect and understanding. As a result, he just may have stopped a cycle of negative behavior that might’ve continued had he been more hands-off with the case.
Both of these men deserve our respect and the connection they share is unique and moving. Here’s to a more humanitarian approach to criminal justice.
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