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‘El Chapo’ jurors could face a long-term threat: PTSD

‘El Chapo’ jurors could face a long-term threat: PTSD
Jurors in the trial of Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman could face post-traumatic stress disorder after the trial, both from gruesome details and sheer boredom, experts say. (Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images)

From the moment they were called to serve in early November, jurors in the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman have been subject to extraordinary precautions, a response to what federal court Judge Brian Cogan called “strong and credible reasons to believe the jury needs protection.”

Their identities are secret. Armed guards escort them to and from the Brooklyn courthouse. Even courtroom artists are forbidden to draw them, out of fear that they could become targets.

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Yet with deliberations in the high-profile drug trafficking case underway, having starting Monday, and a verdict expected by the end of the week, the jurors are more likely to face a new threat — not from sicarios or paparazzi, as many might have feared, but from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My research found a lot of jurors [in similar cases] exhibited signs of PTSD,” including nightmares, intrusive thoughts and such physical reactions as nausea and high blood pressure, said Sonia Chopra, a litigation consultant and a jury expert in Oakland. “The very least that can be done is provide them with services after the trial.”

Decades of studies have shown “juror stress” can be similar in severity and duration to the trauma that first-responders might experience after a tragedy. And while moderate stress can actually improve jurors’ ability to pay attention and think critically at trial, intense, ongoing anxiety is common enough that the federal government offers counseling services to help ex-jurors cope.

The Health and Human Services’ Employee Assistance Program “provides any person who is an employee of the federal government up to six confidential counseling sessions with clinical social workers or counselors to work through things,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts. Because jurors in federal court are considered temporary government employees, “the judge will extend the jurors’ term of service for six months to a year so the jurors can access those federal benefits.”

The problem, Hannaford-Agor and others say, is that those with the power to mandate such help might not know that it's needed, or even that it exists.

“When we’re training court staff and judges, they often don’t know when the jurors are really stressed,” the researcher explained. Although eligibility is a matter of paperwork, “the individual judge has to know about the program and how to access the program and enter the order and get it set up.”

A spokesman for the Eastern District of New York could not immediately say whether jurors there had ever been offered counseling, and officials from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, who oversee the service, did not respond to calls or emails about its use.

Experts say the seven women and five men on the diverse New York jury are more likely than most to need it, and not necessarily for the obvious reasons. Though the defendant is fearsome and some evidence was graphic, the greatest stress for the jury may be the trial’s 12-week length, and at times, its sheer monotony.

“The boredom factor is crushing for jurors,” Chopra explained. “Even in some trials where you don’t have graphic evidence, the loss of control and the boredom can really take a toll.”

Hannaford-Agor agreed.

“Having to pay attention to really tedious testimony is really stressful,” she said. “You’re supposed to pay attention because somewhere in this inanity there might be something really important to the decision you need to make.”

It’s not clear how fear, resentment, boredom or confusion could play into the verdict. While jurors are obviously exhausted — Judge Cogan even admonished one for napping — most seemed to pay close attention.

Heads were bent over evidence binders and noses wrinkled at flat-footed translation. Chicago drug boss Pedro Flores, who impregnated his wife in DEA custody and repeatedly abused the prison’s phone system to call her, elicited audible swoons from several female jurors. And the entire jury box turned to stare in open horror at Colombian cartel boss Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, a convicted killer whose many turns under the plastic surgeon’s knife earned him the nickname “the man of a thousand faces.”

"That's what a real drug kingpin looks like — that guy is scary," defense attorney Jeffery Lichtman told jurors during summations.

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Fearsome witnesses like Ramirez Abadia and the disturbing evidence they presented can be particularly nightmarish for jurors, who are forbidden to speak about what they see or hear in court until they begin their deliberations.

“They are experiencing this all alone,” Chopra said. “The only people who understand what they're going through are their fellow jurors, and they can’t talk with them.”

In that context, the chance to render a verdict often comes as a relief.

“Deliberation can be cathartic for jurors because it’s actually like group therapy,” Hannaford-Agor said.

But it can also prove a flashpoint for conflict, particularly with a case as long and complex as the one against Guzman.

“You remember,” U.S. Atty. Andrea Goldbarg coached the jury, calling back details of months-old testimony that her audience almost certainly didn’t. "The government has proven this beyond a reasonable doubt," she said for each of the 10 counts on which they would deliberate. "Check off the violations."

Lichtman mocked her argument, saying it left him in “a stupor.”

But Susan Fillichio, a trial consultant with the firm DecisionQuest, called the move by Goldbarg shrewd.

“It‘s really important that she did that, and it’s pretty typical for defense counsel to poke fun at it,” the consultant said. “Jurors really appreciate that kind of guidance, because it’s very intimidating to hear all these instructions and then to come look at this eight-page jury form with 10 counts with multiple sub-parts.”

Such complexity is a major trigger for stress, and can derail an otherwise strong prosecution, some observers warned.

“Putting aside whatever fears they might have about being a juror in a case involving such an allegedly dangerous person, it is an overwhelming amount of information to process with a lot of charges to decide,” said New York defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Galluzzo. “It’s an intimidating case.”

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Still, he and others expressed confidence the jury will convict.

“Any kind of fear here is really much less than you'd imagine,” said Gerald McMahon, a criminal defense lawyer in New York who's represented alleged mobsters. “They have tight security, they've been there every day."

After all, McMahon noted, the trial is in Brooklyn.

"New Yorkers are pretty tough," he said.

Special correspondents Sharp reported from Los Angeles and Plagianos from New York.

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