Teen accused at school capturing seeks to throw out confession

Holly Zachariah The Columbus Dispatch

URBANA — Attorneys for Ely Serna, the teenager charged in last year‘s school shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School, argued Tuesday that the confession Serna gave to a detective that day shouldn‘t be allowed as evidence at trial because he didn‘t understand his rights when he gave it.

Champaign County Common Pleas Court Judge Nick Selvaggio said he would issue a written ruling later, but the nearly four hours of testimony provided the first real glimpse into the mindset of Serna and of the emotional turmoil he had apparently been feeling leading up to the shooting.

Psychiatrist Dr. Peter J. Geier testified that Serna has diagnosed severe depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and the eating disorder, bulimia nervosa. Forensic psychologist Daniel L. Davis testified that Serna, who was a 17-year-old senior at the school at the time of the shooting but is 18 now, felt isolated, inferior, hopeless and helpless.

“He complained of being socially bullied and he felt like an outcast,” Davis said. He first evaluated and treated Serna in July, after Serna was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Columbus because he tried to kill himself while at the juvenile-detention center where he had been in custody.

Davis said that Serna‘s depression was severe enough that he could have had trouble thinking things through and realizing the consequences that would come of speaking with investigators.

“He was at a high risk of not being able to understand and to knowingly and voluntarily waive his rights,” Davis said.

Geier disagreed, and testified that in the videotaped interview with sheriff‘s office detective Glenn Kemp, Serna was “logical, coherent and rational” and did seem to understand what was happening.

Serna will be tried as an adult and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of attempted murder and other feloniesin connection with the Jan. 20, 2017, shooting at the rural Champaign County high school. Authorities say he hid in a bathroom stall, assembled a shotgun that he brought in a backpack, pulled on a homemade mask and prepared to storm the hallways.

Logan Cole, then a 16-year-old junior, happened into the bathroom and surprised Serna, who shot Cole twice at close range. Cole was critically wounded, but survived. Serna then fired at a teacher, and into two classrooms before surrendering. No motive or his intended targets have ever been disclosed publicly.

Kemp testified that he questioned Serna at the sheriff‘s office not long after the shooting. He said he read Serna each of his Miranda rights, and asked Serna whether he understood them. Serna said he understood all but one and asked for clarification, and then said he understood.

The questioning stopped after about an hour when Serna‘s step-grandmother, Cathy Weithman, arrived. She is an attorney.

Weithman testified that when she saw Serna that day, he seemed out of it. “When I looked into Ely‘s eyes, it was like looking into a blank cellphone screen,” she said. “… It wasn‘t the Ely I know.”

Serna‘s trial is scheduled for two weeks in April.


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