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Under Pressure, Isolation: Jury Stress Sparks Concerns

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TIMES HEALTH WRITER

When the O.J. Simpson jurors take their courtroom seats for a final time to render a verdict, some observers will be interested in more than their decision. A group of legal experts and psychologists nationwide is eager to know just how these individuals endured a trial that could emerge as a blockbuster case study on juror stress.

While staying awake was once thought of as the biggest pressure jurors faced, a growing number of court administrators, judges and psychologists have become concerned over the magnitude of stress on jurors in a small number of highly publicized, tension-filled cases.

Mental health professionals ponder the psychological trauma jurors could suffer--including the risk of physical or mental illness--while court officials fear that a public that already loathes jury service will have more cause to avoid it.

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Furthermore, they fear that overwhelming stress could trigger mistrials in long, costly cases or influence verdicts.

Stress--probably the most common malady of modern society--is now clearly recognized to have infiltrated the mysterious and shrouded world of jury service.

This discovery is being documented for the first time in a collection of studies showing that trials involving such stressors as violence or gore, heightened publicity or racial tension can trigger many of the classic symptoms of stress in jurors. These include depression, anxiety, weight loss, sleep loss, tearfulness and disruptions in close relationships.

Some studies even show that jurors who are exposed to acutely graphic testimony may react similarly, though not as intensely, as the victims of the crimes.

“Juror stress is not only a source of suffering and disability, but also a potential threat to our jury system,” said Thomas L. Hafemeister, a lawyer and psychologist with the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit organization in Williamsburg, Va.

For example, less than half of Americans who are summoned for jury service report, he says, leading court officials to consider how to make service more palatable.

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In addition, the rate of hung juries is as high as 15% in some states, triggering debate on whether non-unanimous verdicts should be allowed in some cases.

Ultra-high stress levels could make it difficult for juries to reach fair verdicts, said James P. Levine, director of the doctoral program in criminal justice at John Jay College in New York.

“We should care about jury stress because there are some hints that there might be negative repercussions in the decision process,” he says. “There is the thought that juries might retaliate, perhaps subconsciously take out their own stress on the defendant or the prosecutor.

“The other problem is that jurors [under stress] might capitulate just to end the whole thing.”

Secondhand Victims

While legal experts worry over what juror stress could do to the system, psychologists are interested in the effects on the individual jurors. Evolving research on secondary, or witness, trauma--the emotional reaction felt by someone who observes trauma or its devastating effects--suggests that jurors in some cases are experiencing crimes in ways that mimic what the victim experienced.

“In the past, courts haven’t cared about juror stress. Jurors get a pat on the back and a thank you and a dismissal. But we are a lot more sophisticated now about secondary traumatization,” says Roger A. Bell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

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And, said Hafemeister, who recently launched the most comprehensive study yet on jury stress:

“We are becoming sensitive to the fact that jurors are people. The reason that juror stress was first identified as a phenomenon was because of a number of high-profile trials that people looked at and said, ‘Boy, that must have been tough to be a juror.’ ”

Tough indeed was jury service in the trial of two men, ages 17 and 27, who carjacked Pamela Basu’s car in Savage, Md., in 1992. Basu had carried her 22-month-old daughter to the car, stopping to wave goodby to her husband, who held a video camera. It was the child’s first day of preschool, and the occasion called for a remembrance. Later, jurors saw the poignant tape because, in the background, the two defendants are seen walking down the street.

The pair forced Basu from the car just one block from her house. As she reached into the back seat for her daughter, the defendants sped off, leaving Basu snarled in a seat belt and dangling outside the driver’s side door. She was dragged for almost two miles, dying brutally. The defendants dumped the child, still strapped in her car seat, along a street at some point. The child was unharmed.

In addition to the videotape, jurors saw a poster-size color photograph of Basu’s stripped and ravaged body and heard a tearful plea for justice from Basu’s husband. They even endured the sobs of one defendant’s sister as she begged the jury to spare him the death penalty, while he sat at the defense table weeping.

When Hafemeister studied the two panels afterward (the defendants had separate trials), he found people plagued with sleep problems, edginess, anger, withdrawal and depression--classic consequences of too much stress. In a follow-up study two months later, the jurors had begun to heal psychologically, but still reported lingering effects.

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“Not to the point where you would worry about them medically,” Hafemeister said. “Still, the jury service had a lasting effect.”

Studies of other sensational cases have also demonstrated the toll on jurors.

When Westley Allan Dodd was tried for the mutilation deaths of three young boys in Washington state, overwrought jurors were provided with a psychological counseling session--called debriefing--after their verdict. Nevertheless, a survey taken a year later found that five jurors still reported serious stress-related trauma, with some receiving psychiatric help.

In the trial of four men accused of beating truck driver Reginald O. Denny in the throes of the 1992 L.A. riots, one sequestered juror reportedly ran down her hotel hallway wailing, “I can’t take it anymore.” Another halted deliberations because of high blood pressure; yet another due to stomach cramps. When the verdict was finally read, forewoman Carolyn Walters embraced one weeping juror who, Walters said, was crying out of sheer relief that the ordeal was over.

“The pressure put on jurors is indescribable,” said Walters, 41.

The possibility that stress will result in a serious illness plagues some court officials. In Rochester, N.Y., in 1992, a 54-year-old jury foreman who had a history of heart disease dropped dead of a massive heart attack two days after his wife attempted to notify the courts that she thought he was under too much stress from the trial.

And then there is the Simpson trial, in which dismissed jurors complained about sequestration, racial tensions, personality conflicts and trouble dealing with gruesome testimony and evidence.

Ex-juror Tracy Hampton, a 25-year-old flight attendant, has admitted that she asked to be removed from service due to her struggle with severe stress and depression, which led her to be hospitalized two days after she was dismissed in May.

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And on the Memorial Day weekend, dismissed juror Tracy Kennedy tried to kill himself by taking more than 100 tablets of Xanax, according to the new book “Mistrial of the Century,” (Dove Books) by Kennedy, his wife Judith, and Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Abrahamson. Kennedy was hospitalized for a week and is still receiving treatment for the depression he blames on the stress of being a sequestered Simpson juror.

Studies on juror stress, which have only emerged in the last few years, bear out the frequency of these extreme reactions in cases in which the crimes are traumatic.

Mark Costanzo, a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College, found that 75% of the jurors he studied in several death penalty cases reported symptoms of stress, such as sleeplessness, irritability and paranoia over the trial.

A 1993 survey of 312 jurors in Dallas showed that jurors in traumatic trials were six times as likely to exhibit symptoms associated with depression as were jurors in non-traumatic trials.

And in a 1992 study of 40 jurors who served on two disturbing trials--a child sex abuse case and a pornography trial--27 were found to experience the same kinds of stress responses as suffered by the victims, although not as intensely. For instance, many of the jurors--like the victims--had nightmares, sexual inhibitions and depression. Seven of the jurors became ill and three required a doctor’s care for stress-related problems.

Only certain types of trials are of concern, however. In one analysis, Dr. Stanley M. Kaplan and Carolyn Winget of the Cincinnati College of Medicine concluded that several factors are associated with increased juror stress: how long and sensational the trial is, how difficult it is to reach a verdict, the graphic nature of the testimony and evidence, the relationship between jurors, length of sequestration, the public’s attitude about the trial and the background of the jurors.

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To be sure, Hafemeister said, the extreme stress seen in highly publicized cases represents a fraction of jury service.

“These are extremely rare cases,” he said. “We don’t want people to assume that every jury duty will be stressful. For many jurors, it’s tedious, even boring. For others, it’s meaningful, exciting and challenging.” Hafemeister’s new study examines most factors that make a juror’s service stressful--from boring hours spent in waiting rooms to gory testimony. The study is being conducted in six cities, including Santa Ana.

Boredom may be what most people summoned to the courthouse expect. But as attorneys seek to make their case as persuasively as possible, they are relying more on evidence presented “in a striking manner,” Hafemeister said. This can include enhanced photographs, videotapes and computer simulations.

The more up-close-and-personal the approach, however, the harder it is for jurors to dissociate from the depicted events. In the Susan Smith trial, jurors watched a videotaped re-enactment of a car sinking into John D. Long Lake so they could experience for themselves how it looked inside the car and how long it took for Smith’s two toddlers to drown.

Jurors also widely report stress during deliberations. Race and gender issues tend to flare up when the going gets tough.

Hazel Thornton, who served on the Erik Menendez jury, says warring factions arose when, on the second day of deliberations, a vote was taken showing the six men favoring a verdict of first-degree murder and the six women favoring voluntary manslaughter. From then on, she says, deliberations were riddled with “you women” and “you men.” The jurors battled for almost a month in hopes of reaching a verdict because they knew the world was watching.

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Media coverage is blamed for much of the increased stress on jurors, many experts agree, because jurors know their verdicts will be second-guessed.

Publicity may even trigger an increased need for sequestration. Because of reports of the tension sequestration creates, New York courts recently revoked a longstanding rule that juries in all criminal trials had to be sequestered during deliberations.

“There is compelling evidence that sequestration compounds juror stress,” Levine said. “There is also a tiny bit of evidence that it can bring a jury together as a more cohesive body. They get to know each other and rely on each other.”

Weighing Jurors’ Feelings

If jurors respect one another, deliberations can even be therapeutic, said Lois Heaney, a trial consultant with National Jury Project West.

She cites the 1986 trial of notorious fugitive Stephen Bingham, accused of smuggling a gun into San Quentin prison in 1971 that led to a riot and six deaths. The forewoman of the jury was Mary Bradford, a retired elementary schoolteacher.

“Bradford commenced deliberations every day by having people talk about what they were feeling, what they had thought about overnight, whether they had slept well, what was bothering them,” Heaney said. “It was a mini-therapy session. Then they would go on and discuss the evidence. She didn’t want it to break down early into sides. They were out for eight days but they only took one ballot, and it was unanimous.”

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Bradford downplays her leadership of the trial, crediting her teacher’s training, a fellow juror’s good humor and the judge’s advice to avoid an immediate vote.

“And even though we were people from very different kinds of lives, we managed to work well together,” said Bradford, 70, who was interviewed after playing tennis with a Bingham juror who became a close friend.

Judges could borrow a page from Bradford’s book on deliberations, says Terry Lunsford, trial consultant for the National Jury Project West, Oakland. “The message here is that judges need to move beyond the simple and mechanical instructions of the deliberation process, as if there were no feelings involved,” he said.

The recognition that jurors have feelings, too, has led to a radical proposal in Arizona that jurors in civil cases be allowed to discuss the case with one another during the trial as long as they avoid reaching a conclusion. The proposal is pending.

Normally, jurors are forbidden to discuss an ongoing case with anyone. But, Lunsford said, “Trying not to make up your mind is very stressful, and there is some psychological evidence that it’s impossible.”

Indeed, Thornton, of the Erik Menendez trial, says venting her emotions in her diary kept her sane. The diary has been reshaped into a book, “Hung Jury: The Diary of a Menendez Juror” (Temple University Press), due out this fall.

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An alternative to allowing jurors to talk about a case during a trial is making sure they talk about it afterward. Bell, Hafemeister and a few other experts are pioneers in debriefing jurors in high-stress trials in order to help them make the transition into their regular lives. Debriefing entails reviewing normal reactions to stress and making suggestions to help jurors return to their daily lives.

Hafemeister says he met with Judge Lance A. Ito prior to the start of the Simpson trial to discuss ways to minimize juror stress. He says he doesn’t know if Ito will opt for juror debriefing.

“I think Judge Ito has been very sensitive to the needs of the jurors throughout the trial. He has been trying very hard to take care of them.”

And while it’s impossible to know whether the Simpson jurors have bonded, Hafemeister is guessing that they have.

“Since the so-called jury revolt [jurors in April protested the dismissal of the bailiffs assigned to them], they seem to have bonded. We don’t know how hard the verdict will be. But if they are all of like mind, it may not be too tough. And if they are all watching out for each other, they may walk out of it fine.

“They may even enjoy the publicity.”

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