The Code of Criminal Procedure now allows victim coordinators to provide counseling for jurors post-trial, but the legislature set aside no money. Here’s how Travis County helps jurors who endure graphic testimony and evidence in court.
Stacy Miles-Thorpe, LCSW
“The first day of the trial, I came home exhausted. The second day, I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even speak to my friends or my husband. By the third day, my husband confronted me by asking me what was wrong. I bit his head off, ‘What do you think is wrong?!’”
That’s what a juror from a recent punishment retrial told me after I ran into her in public. It was two months after the Laura Hall punishment trial in the summer of 2010. The defendant had been accused and found guilty of tampering with physical evidence in 2007 after she helped to dismember the body of a young woman, Jennifer Cave, who had been murdered. Upon appeal, her conviction was upheld, but the punishment was thrown out, resulting in a retrial of the punishment phase.
After some brief small talk, I asked how the juror was, and she told me about her reaction to the trial. It took three counseling sessions before she could tell her therapist about the images and the testimony she had been carrying with her since the trial. She said she kept it in because she didn’t want to traumatize anyone else.
I had been in the courtroom for Hall’s retrial too, and as I sat with Jennifer Cave’s family, I also watched the jury, wondering about the emotional impact on them as they viewed graphic photos, heard gruesome testimony, and witnessed the pain of the family in the front row. I was interested in hearing about this juror’s experience, and she was eager to share it.
Plenty of trauma to go around
Serving as a juror on a criminal trial is unlike any experience most jurors have had. As we all know, television’s portrayal of crimes, investigations, and trials can be quite different from reality. Jurors are required to sit passively but remain attentive for up to eight hours a day over the course of a few or even many days. They may hear distressing or horrific information, be exposed to images that provoke strong emotional reactions, and are sworn to not discuss the case with anyone for the duration of the trial. They see the raw emotions of the victim or the victim’s family, and they recognize the weight of their verdict and punishment decisions for both parties.
In Hall’s trial, experienced Travis County prosecutors understood that bombarding the jury with multiple, repetitive images could be overwhelming and counter-productive. They included enough images and expert testimony to convey the full picture to the jury but were respectful in not leaving graphic images lingering on the monitor or showing a barrage of photos for shock value. Still, even the limited number of photos of this crime scene were horrific, and the agony of the parents’ testimony about the night they found their child left indelible images in the minds of the jurors.
Juror counseling legislation
The mother of Jennifer Cave, Sharon Cave Sedwick, herself recognized the impact to jurors as she participated in the trials involving her daughter’s murder. Ms. Sedwick felt tremendous gratitude for the jurors’ service but also recognized that there was a gap in the system to serve them. Following the murder trial of defendant Colton Pitonyak in 2007, she worked with her local state representative to amend Code of Criminal Procedure Article 56.04 to allow the crime victim liaison or victim assistance coordinator to offer up to 10 hours of post-trial counseling for jurors in trials involving certain offenses. The legislation is a step in the right direction, as it acknowledges the valuable contribution jurors make to the criminal justice system by establishing an avenue of support after difficult trials.
Why is this support necessary? According to a 1998 study of jurors and alternates from a wide range of civil and criminal cases, one-third of the 401 responding jurors experienced stress as a result of their jury duty.1 The sources of stress were varied, and stress levels were influenced by the type and length of trial. In another study conducted with jurors from three murder trials submitted to the Yukon Department of Justice, 89.5 percent of responding jurors said they felt stress as a result of their jury service, and up to 90 percent found some aspects of the trial moderately to extremely stressful.2
Sources and symptoms of stress
Multiple surveys have been conducted with jurors in the U.S. and Canada to determine what aspects of their service induced the most stress. One obvious source is the nature of the evidence presented, particularly in trials involving violent crimes. While the photos and testimony were cited by jurors in these types of trials, more often jurors said that the weight of the decision around guilt-innocence and punishment most impacted them. In the Yukon Department of Justice study, researchers found the top three most stressful aspects of the murder trials (ranked by the jurors) were: 1) fear of making a mistake, 2) deciding on a verdict, and 3) the deliberations themselves.
Jeanne Robinson (not her real name), a juror who served on a Travis County jury, agrees with this assessment. She and other jurors heard a case involving assault-family violence, in which the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Jeanne found the testimony unsettling. “It was hard hearing about the conflict in the family directly from the family members,” she says. “That kind of violence is outside my experience and is more removed when I read about it in the paper than when it’s right there in front of me.” She remembers feeling the weight of deciding the defendant’s fate and continued to wonder weeks later if they made the right decision. Jeanne also recognized this stress in other jurors, manifested in the jury room as bickering and fear of making a final decision.
While the vast majority of jurors experience minimal stress symptoms, it is not uncommon for some to have lingering symptoms such as recurring thoughts about the crime, headaches, and fatigue. You could expect to find elevated symptoms after longer trials involving more violent crimes. Though uncommon, researchers found that jurors occasionally reported symptoms of moderate to severe distress such as nightmares, intrusive images, anxiety, and depression that interfered with their daily life. (See the Word document below, “Signs of Stress,” for more info.)
Why should we care?
Prosecutors are public servants, and when a citizen serves on a jury, it is one of the only times members of the public witness and participate in our criminal justice system. We are asking them to do their civic duty, and we bear some responsibility in helping them integrate back into their professional and private lives after their service. Their experience as jurors can foster trust and confidence in our system—or it can contribute to their reluctance to serve, or worse, erode public confidence in our system.
Christopher Baugh, an assistant district attorney in Travis County, considers the emotional impact of a trial’s evidence and testimony and factors it into his trial strategy. Mr. Baugh prepares jurors during voir dire for the fact that they will be presented with images of violence, then alerts them again before showing an image: “You want jurors paying attention to the testimony, so you can’t throw a [graphic] picture at them and expect them to attend to your witness, because they get transfixed. They shut down and then can’t do their job as a juror.” The volume of evidence presented is also something he considers, and concedes that this awareness comes with years of practical experience. Jurors will reach a point of being overwhelmed seeing photo after photo depicting the same injury or scene and at that point may struggle to remain attentive.
Travis County’s approach
Good jury management can alleviate sources of stress from the first contact with the jury panel, from limiting delays and wait time, to educating jurors on the voir dire and trial process. Travis County district judges take the time necessary to orient jurors, explain procedures and delays, and express a great deal of appreciation for their time and service, as advised in the American Bar Association’s Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management.3
Post-trial debriefing with the judge also helps jurors process their trial experience. Our district court judges may spend a considerable amount of time visiting with jurors once they are released, allowing them the opportunity to ask questions about the trial or about the criminal justice system. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys routinely visit with jurors as well. The impact of this time is immediately evident. Jurors often exit the courtroom after a trial visibly tense or exhausted. In the 147th District Court, now-retired Judge Wilford Flowers used to proceed to the jury room and spend up to 45 minutes talking with the panel. During that time, jurors would ask questions about the defendant’s background, the law, and the judge’s legal philosophy. More often than not, jurors eventually left the courthouse relaxed and smiling.
Within a week after the conclusion of the trial, the DA’s office sends a follow-up letter to jurors. (A sample copy is below.) In this letter, we acknowledge that during their trial experience, they may have seen or heard disturbing information that may be affecting them. We offer our office’s support if they need to talk with someone about their experience and provide the Victim Witness Division’s phone number.
In a county our size, we regularly conduct trials that will impact jurors emotionally, including cases where a jury must decide whether to impose the death penalty. In these and other difficult trials when we can clearly see the distress in our jurors, our counselors will prepare a letter and information sheet on stress management to be handed to jurors immediately following the trial. In our experience, normalizing possible stress symptoms, encouraging self-care by providing specific ideas on stress management, and providing a resource for further support if needed can help them re-engage their support system and coping skills.
It is rare that we get calls from jurors needing to talk further, but it happens occasionally (four to six times a year on average). We have 10 counselors on staff who are prepared to debrief the jurors themselves and then to provide information and referrals if ongoing counseling is indicated. We’re fortunate in Travis County to have many counseling centers that provide counseling on a sliding-fee scale if cost is prohibitive.
Suggestions for other counties
Unfortunately, Senate Bill 560, which provided for juror counseling, did not set aside funding for it. That is the next step for Sharon Cave Sedwick in her drive to support jurors in difficult cases. Without a system in place to pay for counseling or debriefing, counties are left to decide on their own how, or whether, to offer this support.
If your judges aren’t currently following the ABA’s Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management, particularly Standard 16 on juror orientation and instructions, doing so is a good place to start. It sets a tone of respect and inclusion in the process that helps put jurors at ease. Multiple articles on juror stress also recommend informal post-trial debriefing by the trial judge, as is conducted in Travis County.
Prosecutors’ offices are also encouraged to develop a follow-up letter to jurors that specifically addresses stressors that may have impacted the panelists, along with information on stress management and a resource if further help is needed. Whether this is prepared for every trial or for particularly difficult ones, it’s important to give your jurors an avenue for support.
If you practice in an area with limited resources, you may need to get creative in finding support for jurors. You don’t necessarily need to think in terms of providing therapy to a juror who is distressed; often when people are traumatized on a secondary level, and a debriefing session can help normalize, process, and re-engage their coping skills. You may be able to partner with another victim service agency or non-profit that can provide formal debriefing. There may be a local therapist who could offer one free session or a series of sessions on a sliding-scale basis to jurors referred by your office. Some therapists may offer a phone consultation if the juror has transportation concerns. Lastly, there may be a local member of the clergy who could provide support or counseling.
For counties with access to trauma-debriefing specialists, some courts in the United States and Canada have successfully implemented formal critical incident stress debriefing (also known as CISD), offered to the jury panel as a group after traumatic trials.4 While participation in the King County study of the debriefing program was voluntary, most jurors chose to participate and rated the value of the debriefing very high.
If you are interested in seeing a copy of the letter and information on stress management that our Victim Witness Division provides jurors, please visit www.tdcaa.com in the journal archive. Both are available as attachments.
As for the juror in Laura Hall’s punishment retrial, she carried the heavy emotional burden of the trial for several weeks. I asked her what eventually helped, and she said that she worked through her feelings with her therapist, who encouraged her to use her talent as an artist to help her heal. She used a large artist sketch pad to draw a particular image that remained with her from the trial and wrote out the lines of testimony that continued to haunt her. “Then I tore it to pieces, put it in an old coffee can, took a hammer and just beat the hell out of the coffee can. I threw it in the trash and even watched as the garbage truck hauled it off,” she said with a laugh. She said that talking to her counselor, along with this symbolic act, had unburdened her and allowed her to move forward.
1 Casey, Pamela. (1998) Through the Eyes of the Juror: A Manual for Addressing Juror Stress. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts. Available online at: www.ncsonline.org/WE/Public-ations/Res_Juries_JurorStressIndexPub.pdf.
2 Bertrand, L.D., Paetsch, J.J. & Anand, S. (2008). Juror Stress Debriefing: A Review of the Literature and an Evaluation of a Yukon Program. Whitehorse, YK: Yukon Department of Justice.
3 Committee on Jury Standards, American Bar Association, Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management, vii (1993).
4 Rubio, D., Ventis, W.L., & Hannaford, P. (2000) King County Superior Court Evaluation of the Jury Debriefing Program: Final Report. Denver, CO: National Center for State Courts.
Editor’s note: Chris Jenkins, victim assistance coordinator in Dallas County, was so kind as to send a flyer her office developed for jurors; it is a Word attachment (“juror flyer.22.doc”) below. Thank you Chris!