Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jury Duty: Drama and Trauma

by Donna Pendergast

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.

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.

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.


A Voice of Sanity said...

A great deal of the trauma is caused by the prosecution bringing in gruesome pictures and information in order to prejudice the jury against the defendant, all with the acquiescence of a complacent judge. In far too many cases the material used has absolutely no evidentiary value and its use cannot be justified in any way.

For example, what can the jury learn from seeing a decayed body? When it shows no cause of death, nothing to connect the defendant to it, it is clearly there for shock value only.

Kathryn Casey said...

Texas is on that list, too, Donna.

In A DESCENT INTO HELL, my book on the Colton Pitonyak case, the mother of the victim, Sharon Cave, along with her state senator, Juan Garcia (D-Corpus Christi), sponsored THE JENNIFER CAVE ACT, which offers counseling to jurors exposed to disturbing testimony or exhibits, such as gruesome crime scene photos.

Donna Pendergast said...


I read about Sharon Cave's and Senators Garcia's efforts to enact the recently passed legislation. I thought to myself about how much it says about the type of person that Sharon Cave is to be concerned about jurors when dealing with her own overwhelming loss and heartbreak. Her actions speak volumes.

Donna Pendergast said...

Voice of Sanity

As always your comments and opinions are appreciated. As a prosecutor I do have a problem with trying to sanitize the hard core evidence of a defendants actions. I always try to avoid unduly gory pictures when unecessary however I do have a problem with the argument that it is too prejudicial for the jury to see what a defendant actually did when he/she is being tried for that very crime. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't the jurors see the photos? I would want to if I had to determine someone's fate.

A Voice of Sanity said...

TLTL Asked: Why shouldn't the jurors see the photos? I would want to if I had to determine someone's fate.

Because instead of determining WHO committed the crime the jurors' focus is on how horrible it was. A perfect example is the Scott Peterson case. When asked in interviews how they determined guilt, one juror claimed it was the "autopsy photos which sealed his fate". Yet in those photographs, gruesome though they may be, there was not the slightest information as to the crime; not merely no indication of who killed them, but nothing to explain how they were killed, where they were killed, when they were killed, or why they were killed. And yet these 'jurors' claim they could infer who killed the victims. So what was the purpose in showing these photographs except to prejudice the jury? We already have a dead mother and child - that in itself is enough to condemn anyone if the evidence supports a conviction. Instead the horror of it was used to overcome a total lack of evidence.

Kathryn Casey said...

Yes, Donna, Sharon Cave's a remarkable woman in many ways.

I watched Sharon sit in a courtroom, day after day, hearing in gory detail the horror of her daughter's death, then listened to her worry about all the jurors were exposed to, wondering how they would cope.

One of the reasons I write true crime is that I find so many of the people inspirational.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe SP was found guilty merely because of the autopsy photos. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence to substantiate a guilty verdict in his case. SP's jury deserves more credit than that.

t2sister said...

It went through my mind during the two trials of those that murdered my 12 year old grandson Chris Cejas that if it was so bad the DA and victims assistance people didn't want us to hear it what would it do to the jury? I know much more now than I did at the time, and it WAS bad. I can only imagine how the jurors faired after the trial was over.

Helen Ginger said...

I've been called to jury duty three times. Served on two minor cases. I don't know how I would react in the situations you describe. I hope I don't have to find out.

Anonymous said...

This is just another reason to implement a professional jury system. The average person isn't qualified to interpret a trial. As as far as the gruesome photos go, a professional juror would be paid and educated to handle the photos.

A Voice of Sanity said...

TLTL said: "I don't believe SP was found guilty merely because of the autopsy photos. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence to substantiate a guilty verdict in his case. SP's jury deserves more credit than that".

This is a common myth. Not one of the jurors has ever been able to offer even one piece of evidence that, as the statute requires, went to guilt and had no innocent explanation. In fact there isn't a person on the planet who can perform that marvel AFAIK. OTOH, there was a mountain of evidence that conclusively proved Peterson could not have committed the crime, even if he had had a motive, something the jury agreed he did not. Some pieces of evidence on their own proved him innocent and not merely not guilty. As I said, he was convicted by outrage; supported by horrific exhibits but never by facts.

Anonymous said...

The statute does not require jurors to offer evidence to support their verdict. That is the prosecution's job. That is not a myth but a fact.

Is there a murderer you won't defend??

A Voice of Sanity said...

Anon said: "The statute does not require jurors to offer evidence to support their verdict. That is the prosecution's job. That is not a myth but a fact".

No, that is as wrong as it is possible to be. The prosecution is required to offer evidence to support a verdict. I merely pointed out that despite their 'book' and numerous appearances on TV not one of these jurors could point to the slightest evidence they had used to support a verdict. It is clear that, as the defence feared, they voted solely out of prejudice.

Anon said: "Is there a murderer you won't defend??"

I don't recall ever supporting a murderer. To my knowledge, I have only supported innocent persons or those whose guilt has not or cannot be proved. Sadly, like too many others, it appears that you guess as to who is guilty then look for anything to support your prejudice. I prefer the constitutional approach, to let the evidence lead me to a conclusion whatever it may be.

Brand DIY said...

This former Juror on a serial murder trial likes the idea of helping the Jury deal with all the stress and anxiety. We saw the gore. Heard from a people the accused almost killed. We were stalked by hte media. Our voices were heard on Court TV. We needed to hear and see it all. But wow, It was very hard to deal with.

- Mike