Jury Duty Doesn’t Have To Be A Noble Sacrifice
by Nick Hanzel-Snider
Courtroom experiences are difficult and potentially traumatic for many individuals within the legal system. Judges, attorneys, jurors, court reporters, deputies, interpreters, and more – all are exposed to the details of a case, which for homicides and other violent crimes, can be gruesome and upsetting to say the least. Seeing crime scene photos, hearing 911 recordings, and listening to victims’ testimonies can be stressful and may trigger unresolved trauma for individuals from their past or present experience. For most of the folks in the courtroom, this risk might be considered part of the job (which is not to belittle their experience or suggest that it could be any less traumatizing).
Jurors, however, are private citizens executing their civic duty, and the dangers to their mental and emotional well-being are not summed up in what they see and hear in the courtroom alone. On top of the possible vicarious trauma from exposure to the details of the case, there are several factors that can make jury service an ordeal:
- First, there’s the unknown. Potential jurors show up to their service without any inkling if they’ll be impaneled on a jury at all or for how long, much less if they’ll be exposed to gruesome details in the process.
- Second, during jury selection, potential jurors may be asked probing, personal questions about their own trauma histories – “Were you ever the victim of a crime like this?” Such questions can be reminders of unresolved trauma in our pasts.
- Third is the stress of responsibility. Jurors in a trial must collectively decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence. This responsibility is weighty even in cases not involving the death penalty or long prison sentences.
- Fourth, in some cases, jurors might fear reprisals for finding a defendant guilty (or perhaps for finding a defendant innocent, when victims and family members are convinced of their guilt).
- Fifth and finally, jurors are not able to process their experiences until after their jury service is concluded – they are instructed not to discuss the details of a case with anyone (even other jurors, until deliberation begins), barring them from one of the most common and powerful means of processing and mitigating trauma.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Much can be done to alleviate the negative impacts of exposure to trauma. Courts have an obligation to care for jurors serving their community and country by helping to reduce these negative effects and bolstering jurors’ own capacity to process their jury service experience.
- Firstly (and underlying all the suggestions listed here) is acknowledging jurors’ right to feel feelings. When no attention is paid to what jurors are experiencing, they can come to believe that something is wrong with them for reacting to the stress of the trial in the way that they do. As early as possible in their service, jurors should be informed that what they see and hear over the course of the trial may cause unexpected feelings to crop up, and experiencing this is completely normal.
- Along with validating jurors’ experience, courts can supply basic information and resources about processing trauma. A simple flyer or one-pager – like these offered by the MindWise and Riverside Trauma Center – can convey easy actions that individuals can take to cope with traumatic events, such as:
- Maintain social connections
- Engage in health-promoting behaviors
- Maintain good sleep hygiene
- Find balance in your life
- Courts can also provide jurors – whether during or after their service – with access to mental health screenings, which enable them to check-in privately and anonymously on their own feelings. MindWise’s Screening Program, for example, offers fifteen screens, each of which can be completed in less than five minutes, provides immediate results, and connects individuals to supporting resources.
- Beyond screening, courts can also offer access to trained clinicians. Every jury member will not need the support of a psychologist or licensed social worker, but even for those who do not reach out for such additional assistance, the very existence of another option to seek help can be reassuring and contribute to successfully managing difficult emotions.