Defense: West Liberty school shooting suspect had depression, anxiety

  • Parker Perry
  • Staff Writer
5:11 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 Crime

Ely Serna suffered from severe depression and anxiety when he allegedly opened fire at West Liberty-Salem High School last year, according to a psychologist and a psychiatrist who testified Tuesday during a hearing in the case.

Serna, 18, the suspect in the Jan. 20, 2017, school shooting, is charged with two counts of attempted murder and other felonies. Serna has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

He appeared in Champaign County Common Pleas Court on Tuesday for a hearing on a defense motion asking the judge to toss out an interrogation conducted by Champaign County Sheriff’s Detective Glenn Kemp.

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His defense attorney, Dennis Lieberman, wants the interrogation thrown out because he says Serna couldn’t legally waive his Miranda rights.

The interrogation took place about a half hour after Serna was taken from the school, Kemp said in court Tuesday.

Serna’s hands, which were cuffed from behind, allegedly were still bloody and gun residue was still on him when he was led into a Champaign County interrogation room after the shooting, Kemp said on the stand.

“There were times (Serna) was emotional when he spoke but was able to compose himself and continue speaking,” Kemp said.

Serna at one time put his head between his legs and cried during the interrogation, Kemp said. The attorneys agreed not to go into detail about what Serna told Kemp during the interrogation, as the hearing was only to determine whether Serna could legally waive his Miranda rights.

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Serna responded to questions coherently and articulately, Kemp said. He went through his Miranda rights with Serna, Kemp said, and Serna acknowledged he understood what his rights were.

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Serna’s step-grandmother, local attorney Cathy Weithman, was called to testify Tuesday by the defense. Weithman went to the sheriff’s office after the shooting and on behalf of Serna asked the interrogation stop.

She’s known Serna his whole life, she said, but he allegedly looked different the day of the shooting.

“When I looked into Ely’s eyes, it was like looking into a blank cell phone screen,” she said on the stand Tuesday. “It was not the normal Ely that I saw.”

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He knew where he was and had some concept of what had happened, she testified, but he didn’t act normal.

Dr. Daniel Davis testified that Serna was depressed during the shooting and his depression likely prevented him from making good decisions to protect himself when deciding whether to waive his Miranda right.

“It seemed to me his level of depression could very well affect him,” Davis said. “It seems to me quite likely the depression wouldn’t have abated, the objective evidence says it didn’t.”

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Davis met with Serna five times for tests, he said.

Private psychiatrist Dr. Peter Geier was hired by prosecutors to analyze Serna. He reviewed police documents, school records, the video of the interrogation and interviewed Serna.

Serna was depressed and was suffering from anxiety during the interrogation, Geier testified Tuesday, but not at levels that would infringe his decision making.

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“I don’t think those things affected his ability to understand,” Geier said.

Serna’s reports showed he has average to above average intelligence, Geier said.

Champaign County Common Pleas Judge Nick Selvaggio took the arguments under advisement.

Talebi previously said if the interrogation is ruled inadmissible, the prosecution is still prepared to try the case.

A trial against Serna is scheduled to start on April 10 and is expected to last about two weeks. Lieberman said he is still trying to decide whether he wants to waive a jury trial and opt for a bench trial in the case.