Sometimes one kind deed can be stronger than an iron fist. This Fayetteville, North Carolina Judge knows that more than anyone and carries out his duties as a good judge should — justly, fairly, and with mercy.
A few years ago Joe Serna was arrested for drunk driving and was put on probation. He wasn’t allowed to drink, but he did anyway and lied about it on a recent urine test, so Judge Lou Olivera did what he had to do and sentenced the man to one night in jail.
He had to teach him a lesson — a lesson that would end up teaching millions of others the virtue of compassion.
“I gave Joe a night in jail because he had to be held accountable,” Judge Olivera told CBS.
But the North Carolina judge did one other thing that has probably never happened before in the history of law and it blew everyone, especially Joe, away.
When Serna entered the jail cell and looked around the tiny, empty space and the cold, hard surfaces, he was terrified. He knew it would be one of the longest nights in his life and immediately felt anxiety creep up on him — when he heard the door shut behind him, he got a flashback.
Serna is a Retired Army Sgt. First Class and earned two purple hearts for the three tours he completed in Afghanistan. During those tours Serna survived a suicide bomber and an IED, but it was one night in Afghanistan he didn’t think he would live through that would haunt him forever.
The Sergeant was in a truck with three other green berets when the road they were driving on suddenly collapsed and they fell into a creek.
“We were following the creek and the road gave way … and the vehicle went into the creek,” Serna told CBS.
Trapped and unable to move, Serna was certain he was going to die that day. As water quickly filled the car and continued to rise “all hope was lost” and Serna didn’t think he would make it out alive, until the water suddenly stopped right at his chin.
He was the sole survivor.
That moment still haunts him to this day and Serna suffers from PTSD. He drinks as a result, and is afraid of small, confined spaces, which can trigger terrifying flashbacks for the Sergeant.
Judge Olivera knew about Serna’s history but he had to fulfill his duty and hold him accountable for lying about breaking his probation. But Judge Olivera wasn’t going to let him face this scary night on his own — so he did what he felt was just.
“I knew what Joe was going through and I knew Joe’s history and he had to be held accountable but I just felt I had to go with him … I felt I had to go with him,” Judge Olivera said.
Judge Olivera did what probably no other judge has ever done before.
So just a few minutes after the door shut behind him, Serna heard it open again and turned around to see what he never imagined he would.
It was the man who had sent him there, Judge Olivera, standing in the doorway. Judge Olivera, without his robe, joined Serna for the whole night in the jail cell not as a judge, but as a friend.
“We ate meatloaf and we talked about a lot of things,” said Judge Olivera.
Serna said Judge Olivera’s company and compassion melted away all of his fear and anxiety and transported him from a horrific scene from his past to back home with a friend.
“We talked about our families … the walls [from the jail cell] just didn’t exist anymore,” he told CBS. Serna added, “He brought me back to North Carolina … from being in a truck in Afghanistan.”
“That means so much to me sir,” the retired Sergeant told Judge Olivera, who he saluted and hugged. The act of kindness also made him a new man — determined to stay true to his rules.
Serna told the judge he didn’t want to disappoint him anymore and promised not to get into trouble.
The men embraced in the courtroom, said “I love you,” and parted ways as men, more compassionate, more hopeful than before they walked in.