Skip to main content

Plucked from their day-to-day, they face distressed victims, review grisly evidence and are then tasked with agreeing on a defendant's fate. Later, thanks to contempt laws, they are barred from speaking to family, friends or even therapists about their disturbing experiences.

Jurors are primed for trauma and need more social and psychological support, says a new report from psychologists at the University of Leicester.

"We simply don't know enough about what goes on within the jury room," said Noelle Robertson, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology who co-authored the study, which was published in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice last month.

The study revealed that for the more vulnerable candidates, jury duty can lead to severe stress or post-traumatic stress disorder - or what the researchers refer to as "vicarious traumatisation."

Most recently in the high-profile case of Josef Fritzl, jurors were shown Elisabeth Fritzl's graphic video testimony in short segments. In the Paul Bernardo case, Justice Patrick LeSage spoke openly about waking up at night in the months and years afterward - Canadian law prohibited Mr. Bernardo's jurors from sharing their experiences.

The study, which also references earlier studies from Canada, the United States and New Zealand, was conducted in 2007 on 68 British jurors.

The respondents filled out an online survey that included questions about their own personal histories of trials and trauma. It offered a "trauma symptoms checklist" about headaches, insomnia or weight loss experienced during and after the trial. Another scale asked jurors to rate 44 different aspects of jury service, including disturbing evidence and jury deliberation and decision time.

Some 23 per cent of the jurors reported dealing with traumatic events in the course of their trial; 5 per cent reported that they had responded with "intense fear, helplessness or horror." One juror was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jury duty proved especially damaging for women, who were also more adversely affected by dissension and questioning in the jury room. Most respondents found deliberation more stressful than visually gruesome evidence, especially when jurors felt pressure from others to change their verdict.

That finding doesn't surprise James Morton, a Toronto lawyer who teaches classes about evidence at Osgoode Hall.

"One hears rumours of nasty arguments, occasionally even leading to physical confrontations in the jury room. People take very different positions and they are mandated to come to a unanimous decision in the criminal cases. ... You can imagine there'd be intimidation, pressure and 'gosh, we all want to go home Friday and be done with it.' "

Unlike American jurors, Canadian and British jurors are sworn to secrecy both during and after the trial. And unlike jurors in the U.S., they are often not sequestered, which means they must travel home nightly with their experiences.

Although Mr. Morton believes the Canadian system works, he admits that Canadian jurors "are not treated perhaps as well as they should be."

"You're taken out of your ordinary life and put into a highly stressful difficult situation .... They get a trivial amount of money on a daily basis and they're herded into rather uncomfortable, beat-up waiting rooms. It's not a pleasant process."

The British study recommends more preparation for jurors and suggests making supporters - similar to the ones available for vulnerable witnesses - available to jurors to lessen the isolation they may experience.

"If we think about models of trauma, then the fact that you can't disclose material to [someone]who may be sympathetic and is able to engage in something that might [provide]catharsis, is difficult," Dr. Robertson said.

The study also calls for a questionnaire that would save jurors the trauma of cases that might resonate with their own past experiences.

In Canada, jurors get very little probing on their background. Mr. Morton pointed out that a juror who can't bring himself or herself themselves to look at the evidence and derails the trial is far costlier than a questionnaire.

Dr. Robertson, the study's co-author, said jury selection is "an evolving domain," but added: "There's a great deal of inertia in the system, and a resistance to change: 'Well it's worked for hundreds of years? Why should we alter it?'

"But of course we've become increasingly aware of sensitivities and we know a hell of a lot of more about human processes and behaviours."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles