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October 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Courts Offer Jurors Help After Traumatic Cases

Chief Judge Joseph Bataillon, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, did more than just thank jurors after their verdict in a gruesome child pornography trial earlier this year. He extended their jury service long enough so that any one of them who wanted to could receive professional counseling.

“Judges and lawyers must be sensitive to just how stressful being exposed to troubling evidence or testimony, especially in child pornography and death penalty cases, can be for jurors,” Bataillon said. “Jurors are performing a civic duty for only $40 a day, and the material they are exposed to in such cases is fundamentally known to be traumatic.”

The federal trial court in Nebraska is one of several around the nation that have made counseling services available for grand and trial jurors.

After a six-month capital punishment murder trial, Judge Maxine Chesney (N.D. Cal.) likewise extended the jury’s term of service so that counseling could be made available.

“Because such counseling is confidential, I don’t know if any juror actually opted for one or more sessions, but I can tell you that there were looks of appreciation on the jurors’ faces when they were told about its availability,” said David Weir, the district’s courtroom services supervisor.

“A court doesn’t have to jump through a lot of hoops before it can offer counseling in such cases,” Weir said. “In fact, it’s actually a very simple process involving nothing more than a couple of phone calls and an administrative order from the judge. We called the Administrative Office, and Attorney Advisor David Williams in the District Court Administration Division got the ball rolling.”

Current occupational health literature says it is common for jurors to experience some emotional or physical reactions after concluding their service in emotional cases. Coping tips include talking to family members, friends, or neighbors, and getting lots of exercise.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York has produced its own pamphlet, “Tips for Coping After Jury Duty,” that includes the telephone numbers of the New York Psychological Association, the state government’s Office of Mental Health, and the American Psychiatric Society.

“After an emotionally difficult case, we make the brochure available to jurors,” said Clerk of Court Larry Baerman.

District of Nebraska Clerk of Court Denise Lucks said her court formalized its process for helping jurors cope about a month after the child pornography trial presided over by Bataillon. “Discovering what resources are out there is half the battle,” she said. “We first talked to David Williams. Then, Cam Burke, the former clerk of court for the District of Idaho, shared his court’s letters to jurors and administrative orders so we could take them and make them our own.”

Her court’s written materials tell employees to “pay extra attention to the little things,” such as making sure water and tissues are available for jurors in the courtroom, and watching jurors for signs of distress during the trial and recesses.

Earlier this year in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Lawrence Stengel presided over a trial involving child pornography that included the victimization of very young children. Concerned about the case’s impact on jurors and court staff, he and Senior Probation Officer Leslie Maxwell, who specializes in child pornography prosecutions, met with jurors—along with a psychologist—after the trial verdict.

“The discussion lasted nearly two hours. [The psychologist], Ms. Maxwell and I spoke briefly, then the jurors asked questions and offered comments. I believe the session was extremely valuable, and I will consider this option in future cases where the jury is exposed to very troubling evidence,” Stengel said.

Bataillon noted that counseling and other help also is available to court staff who are exposed to troubling evidence and testimony. “We have an obligation to our employees to provide a safe work environment, so it is appropriate to offer employee assistance in these instances,” he said.