The paperwork has arrived, the die has been cast: You have been summoned for jury duty. Unless you are excused by the court because you fit one of a few limited exceptions, you will be pulled away from your daily routine to report to the courthouse at the date and time indicated, ready to fulfill your civic duty. But are you really prepared for what fulfilling your civic responsibility may entail?
Imagine being the juror who has to listen to testimony about a serial murderer and his/her path of death and destruction. Try to comprehend being a juror in the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer (mugshot right) and having to listen to testimony about multiple murders and cannibalism.
The juror experience is a unique one, especially in a criminal case involving death or violent physical injury. Unlike television, in a courtroom, the horror and gore are for real. Jurors in a way become victims of the crime. They have front row seats where they see the blood, hear disturbing testimony, view the horrific photographs, and become a part of the crime scene in a way that becomes very real to them.
Those horrific details can leave jurors emotionally depleted. Crimes involving physical violence to children or the death of a child can be especially traumatic to jurors who are not prepared to deal with the emotional impact of that sort of grizzly testimony.
In death penalty cases where jurors have a life in their hands the stress factor is usually considerably magnified. Jurors watch as defendants' families and friends beg for mercy while weighing those pleas against horrific and brutal facts. They then contemplate taking the life of another human being and ultimately render a life or death judgment.
Studies have found that trial-induced stress—related to disturbing testimony, concern over personal safety issues (especially in violent gang-related crimes), and the court's prohibiting jurors from discussing troubling issues with their normal support network—can affect mental health and cause post-trial psychological problems. While some jurors may go away from the jury experience relatively unscathed, others may have a much harder time dealing with what they have seen and heard. Stress-related maladies ranging from anxiety and sleeplessness to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have been reported by jurors.
Traditionally, jurors end their jury service by coming to an exhausting and usually emotionally charged decision. They are then sent home to resume their daily routines without any assessment of whether or not the events of the trial might have had any impact on their mental and emotional health.
Increasingly, courts are recognizing that compelling jurors to take part in a gruesome or high-profile trial situation can result in juror trauma and are offering counseling to jurors who might want help sorting through issues related to the trial. This trend, known as jury debriefing, is usually offered to jurors by professional counselors immediately following the trial.
The debriefing counseling can take many forms—ranging from a group talk session where jurors are reassured that their feelings are normal, to more intensive individualized counseling sessions. The counselors are also adept at spotting individuals who might be more severely affected by the impact of what they have seen and heard and can assist them in accessing more resources in the future if necessary.
In Washington State, Seattle's King County Court system was one of the first jurisdictions to offer juror counseling beginning in 1998. They have an ongoing contract with a local mental health center to provide services to jurors who may be traumatized by the juror experience. In Texas, a bill offering up to ten hours of juror counseling was approved by the legislature and signed into law on September 1, 2008. Other jurisdictions, including Florida, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin, have implemented programs which give jurors access to counseling services to help counteract the negative psychological effects which may result from jury service.
Despite a demonstrated need, the implementation of programs offering counseling services to jurors has been hampered by a lack of funding sources necessary to pay for those services. The economic recession has resulted in lean state and local government budgets leaving no room for discretionary services.
Which leaves us asking the question: What is the judicial system's responsibility to jurors who have fulfilled their civic duty by serving on a jury and paid a high psychological price in the process?
That question is still being answered.
Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.