Defense attorney Serna cut a colorful figure in court

Attorney David Serna talks to the media after his client, Levi Chavez, was found not guilty of killing his wife Tera Chavez at the Sandoval County Judicial Complex in July 2013. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A defense attorney known for his colorful suits and personality, fierce dedication to clients and a jaunty beret, David Serna was a familiar sight in New Mexico courtrooms for decades.

Serna died Aug. 13 and his solo practice law firm has closed, according to a recorded phone message at his office. He was 68.

Friends remembered Serna as a jazz-loving cigar aficionado and gentleman who always carried an ornate cane, treated everyone with respect, and defended clients with passion and intelligence.

“Nothing about David was boring – nothing, right down to his socks,” said Levi Chavez, an Albuquerque attorney and a former high-profile client of Serna’s. “Everything about him was colorful, literally and figuratively.”

Serna may be best known for representing Chavez, a former Albuquerque police officer who was acquitted by a jury in 2013 in the shooting death of his wife. The trial gained nationwide attention and captivated New Mexicans for weeks with allegations that Chavez staged his wife’s suicide.

Much of the trial focused on allegations that Albuquerque police officers who responded to the Chavez home in Los Lunas removed key evidence.

“What did I tell you?” Serna told Chavez as the two embraced following the verdict.

Chavez said in a phone interview Friday that Serna was comforting and nurturing throughout the trial.

“We didn’t have a normal attorney-client bond – it went deeper than that,” Chavez said of Serna. “He would call up and check on me – keep me hopeful and keep me forward looking. He just filled me with hope when I had none.”

Attorney David Serna, left, is seen with his client Levi Chavez during Chavez’s 2013 trial in the shooting death of his wife. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Chavez said he dropped into Serna’s office unannounced just weeks before his death. Serna was still working and representing clients, he said.

“We gave each other a hug,” Chavez recalled. “He seemed in good spirits. He seemed like normal David. I missed the opportunity to smoke a cigar with him and I’ll always regret that.”

Chavez said Serna cheered his decision to attend law school.

“When I told him I was going to be an attorney, he was really encouraging,” Chavez said. “He was really proud of me.”

Serna had his own brushes with the law in 2019 when he was twice arrested on drunken driving charges.

A judge dismissed the first charge in July 2019. In the second case, Serna pleaded guilty in November 2019 to first-offense DWI and received a one-year suspended sentence, according to court records.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., Serna defended accused killers, drug dealers and drunken drivers during a four-decade career.

In a 2006 profile in The Albuquerque Tribune, Serna described himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool hard-core criminal defense lawyer” who was drawn to criminal defense law early in his career.

“I find that the dark, gritty subject matter of criminal cases is really the stuff of human life,” he told a reporter. “It is the essence of the human condition. It is the stuff – the themes taken up in Shakespeare, the Old Testament – of betrayal and honesty, and anger and regret.”

Serna was exposed to both law and music growing up. His mother was a singer and his father was a Silver City district attorney who once played jazz saxophone with Les Brown’s big band.

Serna himself sang in rock and jazz bands, glee clubs and a United Methodist Church chancel choir.

Albuquerque attorney Jeff Rein said Serna was “easy to be around,” but a forceful personality who commanded attention in any forum.

“He was not a wallflower,” Rein said. “If he was in a room, you knew it. He just had that kind of presence and it was a comfortable, pleasant personality.”

Serna also was a smart lawyer with years of experience who helped others and had a kindly personality.

“He was always willing to help lawyers out with ideas or pleadings,” Rein said. “He was polite to everyone that I knew. He was a real gentleman.”

The recorded message on Serna’s office phone said that “services are unknown and are pending at this point.”

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