The suspect in the West Liberty-Salem High School shooting will be tried in front a Champaign County judge and not a jury.
Ely Serna, now 18, is set to go to trial beginning April 10. He’s accused of bringing a shotgun to West-Liberty Salem High School on Jan. 20 and opening fire, including shooting then 16-year-old Logan Cole twice.
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Serna is charged with several felonies in Champaign County Common Pleas Court, including two counts of attempted murder, three counts of felonious assault, six counts of improperly discharging a firearm, and single counts of inducing panic and illegal conveyance of a deadly weapon in a school. Serna has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Defense attorney Dennis Lieberman has been debating how to try the case over the past few months and has discussed it in open court a few times with Champaign County Common Pleas Judge Nick Selvaggio. The defense made their decision last week.
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“I, Ely Serna, a defendant in the above cause, hereby voluntarily waive and relinquish my right to a trial by jury, and elect to be tried by a judge of the court in which the said case may be pending,” a waiver of jury trial court document says.
Making the decision to waive a jury trial isn’t easy, Lieberman told the Springfield News-Sun.
“It is rare that I personally, as an attorney, waive a jury trial,” Lieberman said. “I usually have to have real concerns about the type of jury that I am able to get and in a case like this with a lot of emotion throughout the country for these type of situations, I thought a judge would be more able to sift through the emotion and deal only with the facts and opinion of the experts.”
By waiving his right to a jury, Serna understands that his trial will be held in front of Selvaggio, according to the court document, and the judge will have the sole responsibility of determining whether he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty.
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“I understand that if Judge Selvaggio finds me guilty of the offenses, then with regard to my affirmative defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, Judge Selvaggio will have the sole responsibility to determine whether I have successfully proved by the greater weight of the evidence that at the time of the offenses, I did not know, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, the wrongfulness of my acts,” Serna says in the court documents.
Champaign County Prosecutor Kevin Talebi couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.
During a suppression hearing held last month, a psychologist and a psychiatrist both said Serna suffered from anxiety and depression during the shooting.
Lieberman also asked the judge whether he had any reservations about hearing the case, according to a journal entry filed on March 23.
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The defense, prosecution and judge met in chambers, according to a journal entry written by Selvaggio, where Lieberman asked Selvaggio whether he had any reservations about hearing the case.
“The court indicated that it appreciated and understood the reason for the inquiry, that it had previously given such an inquiry past consideration,” the entry says. “Then as now, the court concluded that it had the ability to separate general news knowledge of our nation’s school shooting incidents and the subsequent displays of social consciousness from the particular facts and circumstances of the alleged incident at West Liberty-Salem High School.”
Lieberman told the News-Sun he wanted to be sure the judge felt comfortable hearing the case because he has deep ties in the Champaign County community.
“I simply wanted to make sure he had no conflicts because of various relationships in Champaign County. It’s a small county,” he said. “I am satisfied that he responded in a manner which indicated that he has no reason why he should recuse himself.”
Selvaggio conducted a suppression hearing where some facts of the case were revealed. Selvaggio ruled then that Serna lawfully waived his Miranda right when he spoke with investigators just an hour after the shooting.
The hearing wouldn’t impede his ability to rule fairly, Selvaggio said.
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“The court indicated that based on its knowledge of the allegations, it did not believe there was a reason to step aside as judge,” the entry says. “The court noted that if the defense felt differently, there were mechanisms available to seek such a result.”
The Springfield News-Sun has provided in-depth coverage of the West Liberty-Salem High School shooting, including tracking developments in the court case and digging into school security upgrades.
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