Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility
The Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee. Courtesy California Board of State and Community Corrections.

A former nurse at the Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee pleaded not guilty Friday to an involuntary manslaughter count stemming from the death of a 24-year-old inmate under her care at the East County jail.

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.

Pascua, who was supported by 46 people in attendance at the El Cajon courthouse, will remain out of custody until her next court date in February, but must adhere to release conditions imposed by San Diego Superior Court Judge Michelle Ialeggio that include prohibitions against caring for patients.

In a March 2020 news release regarding Serna’s death, the sheriff’s department said she died from complications of drug abuse, with a contributing factor of early intrauterine pregnancy.

According to the DA’s Office, Serna was moved to a medical isolation cell at the jail after reporting she was dizzy and nauseous.

Serna later fell in the defendant’s presence, at which point prosecutors allege Pascua did not take Serna’s vitals and did not move her. Instead, Pascua allegedly 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 the day charges were filed against her, the sheriff’s department suspended Pascua without pay, a decision “based on sustained findings of misconduct following a Sheriff’s Department Internal Affairs investigation.”

In a statement announcing the charges, the DA’s Office said the investigation is ongoing and that a review is continuing into whether there are “other parties who may also be criminally responsible.”

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.”

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. 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.

Along with the county, Pascua and several others are named as defendants in the ongoing lawsuit.