Local News

Cumberland County judge spends night in jail to help former soldier

Posted April 21, 2016 6:24 p.m. EDT
Updated April 21, 2016 6:32 p.m. EDT

— A judge’s act of compassion has a former Fort Bragg soldier promising to get his life back on track.

A Cumberland County judge sentenced veteran Joseph Serna to spend one night in jail for a probation violation, but the former soldier was shocked when the judge served the time with him.

Serna is a former Special Forces soldier who has been deployed four times. Since his retirement, he has used alcohol to fight battlefield demons.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends and I take my bumps as well and I didn’t want to talk about it,” said Serna.

Serna’s fight to get sober landed him in Cumberland County’s Veterans Treatment Court, which is run by District Court Judge Lou Olivera.

“It’s a treatment court, but it’s a treatment court that’s targeted to those veterans who keep on appearing in the court system for particular reasons,” Olivera said.

Serna has appeared before Olivera 25 times while going through the treatment program. Serna said last week, he didn’t tell the truth about his urinalysis test, and Olivera ordered him to spend 24-hours behind bars.

Olivera drove Serna to the jail in Robeson County. The cell door closed and Serna sat on the cot. He said the door rattled, then opened, and he was shocked at what happened next.

“The judge comes in … 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,” Serna said.

The two men spent most of the night talking about their military service.

“It was more of a father-son conversation as opposed to a judge talking to someone and sentencing them. It was personal,” Serna said.

Olivera, who served in the Gulf War, said he hopes the experience helps Serna to get his life back on track.

“They have worn the uniform and we know they can be contributing members of society. We just want to get them back there,” Olivera said.

Olivera said he has never before spent the night in prison with someone he has sentenced and doesn't know if he would do it again.