A nurse at the Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 24-year-old inmate at the East County jail, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office announced Thursday.
Danalee Pascua, 36, is charged in connection with the Nov. 11, 2019, death of Elisa Serna and faces up to four years in prison if convicted.
According to the DA's Office, Serna was moved to the jail's Medical Observation Unit after reporting she was dizzy and nauseous, then fell in the defendant's presence.
The DA's Office alleges that after the fall, Pascua did not take Serna's vitals and did not move her. Instead, prosecutors say she left Serna on the ground in the cell until about an hour later, when she and deputies returned to begin "futile lifesaving measures."
In a statement, the sheriff's department said Pascua was immediately placed on paid administrative assignment following Serna's death and was removed from having any contact with patients.
On Thursday, she was suspended without pay, a decision "based on sustained findings of misconduct following a Sheriff's Department Internal Affairs investigation," the statement read, which indicated the department supports the District Attorney's decision to charge Pascua.
The sheriff's department also said it hopes "this development will bring some comfort to Ms. Serna's family" and offered "our deepest sympathies" to her family, friends and loved ones.
County jail records on Thursday did not indicate Pascua was in custody, though she is due in an El Cajon courtroom on Nov. 18 for an arraignment. The DA's Office also said the investigation is ongoing and that a review is continuing into whether there are "other parties who may also be criminally responsible."
In a statement announcing the charges, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said, "There is nothing more sacred than the sanctity of life and when that life is in the custody and care of government, it must be safeguarded and provided with the appropriate medical care. The evidence in the in-custody death of Elisa Serna demonstrates criminal negligence that contributed to her death. It is a heartbreaking case of failure to safeguard Elisa's life by those who are charged with that responsibility."
In a March 2020 press release regarding the death, the sheriff's department said Serna died from complications of drug abuse, with a contributing factor of early intrauterine pregnancy.
Serna's death is also the subject of a federal wrongful death lawsuit filed against the county last year by Serna's family, who alleged jail staff were aware of Serna's substance abuse and subsequent withdrawal symptoms, but did not provide her with treatment.
"To subject a human being to the kind of treatment, to the kind of neglect that causes them to lose their life, is intolerable in a civilized society," Serna family attorney Gene Iredale told NBC 7.
Though Serna was fainting, had low blood pressure, was vomiting regularly and displaying odd and incoherent behavior, jail staff "ignored the obvious signs of medical distress" and "failed to provide proper medication as Elisa's condition was worsening," the complaint alleges.
Iredale claims Serna became severely dehydrated several days after she was arrested and was then placed in a medical observation unit where she began seizing, hit her head and slumped to the ground -- all of it in front of a nurse and deputy.
"The reaction of the two county jail personnel, including the nurse, was to turn and walk away and to leave Elisa Serna on the floor for an hour," he said.
Iredale also disagrees with the Medical Examiner's findings and said new evidence includes video from Serna's cell.
"The Medical Examiner did not have the relevant evidence to make an accurate assessment of the real cause of death," Iredale said.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said in a statement they support the DA's decision to file charges, and said they hope it helps the Serna family find comfort.