Jury Duty: Verdicts and Vicarious Trauma

Contributing Author: Wendy L. Patrick, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County (CA)

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

Many legal professionals have experienced vicarious trauma, especially those of us in the criminal justice system who routinely handle and prepare gruesome photos and graphic evidence for trial. While law enforcement officers and prosecutors have been trained to be aware of signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma and have access to resources including peer support and counseling, what about the jury? We routinely display crime scene photos and elicit heart-wrenching testimony from victims — many of them children, relying on the brave men and women sitting in the box to fulfill their civic duty to deliver justice. But at what cost? One of the trends in the wellness arena, which is no doubt much appreciated by jury panels everywhere, is a focus on addressing and minimizing vicarious trauma in jurors.

Trauma Experienced by Triers of Fact

Michelle Lonergan et al. (2016) studied the prevalence and severity of trauma as well as stress-related symptoms among jurors, by reviewing literature on PTSD and depression resulting from performing jury duty. Recognizing concurrent symptomology, they note that PTSD is linked with avoidance, hyperarousal, intrusion, and symptoms of depression.

Their literature review of eighteen studies revealed that as many as 50% of jurors experienced trauma-related symptoms, a few of whom suffered for months. Consistent sources of stress included factors related to deliberations, graphic evidence, and trial complexity. Factors such as being female, and having a history of prior trauma, was linked with post-trial pathology. Lonergan et al. concluded that a minority of jurors may be at increased risk for psychopathology as a result of jury duty, especially when serving on cases involving violent crimes.

The Stress of Sitting in Judgment

Lonergan et al. found that in the vast majority of studies they examined, there were certain factors that were particularly problematic. The most prominent sources of stress included jury deliberations and decision-making, tension between jurors, having to reach a verdict or make a decision on whether to impose the death penalty, and being sequestered. They note that other consistently reported sources of stress included feelings of isolation, fears of retaliation, inability to discuss the trial with loved ones, media attention, length of the trial and deliberations, and perhaps not surprisingly, being exposed to emotional and disturbing evidence.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Reducing Juror Symptoms of Trauma

Lonergan et al. note that their findings emphasize the responsibility of the judicial system to consider and address trauma and stress-related symptoms as a result of jury duty. They note that many jurisdictions already have programs and services to mitigate juror stress, including post-verdict debriefing, which consists of a structured group discussion geared to educate and support attendees by covering productive responses to stress and coping techniques.

Lonergan et al. note that there is a split of opinion with respect to who should conduct the debriefing, mental health professionals or judges. There is a practical argument that the trial judge is in the best position to conduct the debrief considering the fact that he or she sat through the trial as well, although clinicians have specialized training that judicial officers do not. Yet regardless of who leads the sessions, evidence suggests that debriefing alone may be insufficient to lessen experienced pathology among jurors. And although there is no statistically significant difference in reported stress level when jurors were debriefed by judges versus not at all, Lonergan et al. note that jurors frequently perceive the debriefing as helpful.

As prosecutors dedicated to pursuing justice, we owe it to jurors who sacrifice their time both personally and professionally, to protect their mental health as well. We continue to explore ways to best care for the brave men and women who step up to ensure that justice is served.



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