Jury Service and Stress

Imagine serving on a jury in a murder trial. After all the evidence, your jury unanimously agrees on a first-degree guilty verdict. Now, your jury must decide on the punishment: life in prison or death. This part of the trial may have some new rules for the jury to follow, and to reach a death verdict, they must all agree to it. Suppose you and everyone else on your jury agree that the death penalty is appropriate.

Once the trial is over and the death sentence is pronounced, how would you feel? A little stressed? Guilty of having poor judgment? Shame over undervaluing a human life? Mulling over a lot of “what ifs” in your mind? It’s no wonder that PTSD occurs not infrequently in jurors serving for murder trials. If that’s not bad enough, what if the judge overrules the jury and orders life imprisonment? Now how would you feel? The judge is essentially saying that your judgment is flawed. Can you even begin to imagine the self-critical thoughts that would begin to flood your mind? One might easily conclude: “If the judge has the final word, why put the jury through such mental turmoil?”

Surveys of jurors following a trial verify that the stress of jury duty can be real. Roughly a third of jurors report stress during the trial and say it complicated their ability to be confident about their judgment. One in five say they needed to talk to someone about residual stress effects after the trial. About half report being concerned about how their fellow jurors were handling their stress.

When a trial is unusually lengthy, these percentages generally increase dramatically. In one survey after a long criminal trial, 96% reported serious stress symptoms, similar to symptoms of PTSD – disturbing memories, sleep disturbances, emotional instability, and tension. These types of symptoms were more likely to be present following lengthy trials that involved graphic pictures of blood, victims, and corpses. Such materials reminded jurors of the overwhelming and potentially devastating responsibility weighing on them. They found themselves in a position where they could drastically change the life of a human being. The fear of making the wrong decision, and living with the guilt, was crushing. And, to add insult to injury, during the trial they could not deal with their stress and anxiety by talking with somebody else. For the length of the trial, they have to bottle up everything that they’re hearing and seeing. The result is a psychological powder keg of denial that can explode when the trial ends.

If chosen for jury duty, is there anything you can do in advance of the trial to fortify yourself against the coming onslaught? Remember, facing any coping challenge requires a plan of action; in this case, it would be a defensive plan so you go into battle psychologically armed. Also remember that even though this list is for jury participation, the general steps would be appropriate for many stressful situations.

First of all, engage in realistic acceptance and admit it won’t be easy. Resist denial comments like, “I can handle it. It won’t be that bad. This will just be a minor inconvenience.” Such beliefs are not realistic because you could be facing major mental and emotional disruptions in your life. Second, prepare for emotional ups and downs, and accept those swings as normal, to be expected. Third, remind yourself you’re not alone. Not only are your fellow jurors facing the same coping challenge as you, but members of your family are also dealing with the stress of your jury duty. When it’s all over, you will have a large empathetic support group. Fourth, keep a diary during the trial, making notes of your feelings, frustrations, and anxieties at the end of each day. This self-talk can be an effective, temporary emotional safety valve until you’re able to talk stressors out with others. Fifth, if you are sequestered, maintain your emotional anchors – friends, family – as allowed by the judge. Sixth, following the trial, do not be afraid to seek professional psychological help if you are adversely affected by the trial.

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