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Who’s Taking Care of the Jurors? Helping Jurors After Traumatic Trials

The jurors in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ended their work earlier this month when they imposed a death sentence. But, after weeks of graphic testimony and evidence of lives and bodies destroyed in the Boston Marathon bombing, some jurors may still face challenges. So the presiding judge in the case, Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr. (D. Mass.), entered an order extending their jury service for 90 days.

Sound counter intuitive?  

Massachusetts Clerk of Court Robert Farrell explained:  “They are not serving as jurors during this extension of time; it is on an administrative basis. This status allows jury members to receive free counseling through the federal Employee Assistance Program, EAP.”

Federal judges have the authority to extend a jurors’ service so they may take advantage of EAP counseling services. Jurors in this case, as in other traumatic cases, also received a letter from the Boston court detailing the services available, along with an EAP handout on post-trauma do’s and don’ts.

EAP is provided and managed by Federal Occupational Health (FOH). Counseling is confidential and voluntary. 

The idea of providing counseling for jurors is a relatively recent development. Nearly 10 years ago, Judge Mark W. Bennett (N.D. Iowa), debriefed a jury following a federal death penalty case, and was at a loss when a juror asked if any trauma counseling was available.  The case concerned the particularly horrific murder of two small girls.

“Unfortunately, I was unprepared for the question,” said Bennett, “but I was familiar with several social service and mental health counseling agencies where the juror lived and I recommended those.” 

A 2008 kidnapping and murder trial in the District of Idaho was a critical case for EAP counseling for jurors. “A video was part of evidence the jurors had to watch, and it was extremely difficult for them. I contacted EAP hoping for some help,” said Sherry Richter, the District of Idaho’s jury administrator. The response was so positive, by the next year EAP services, provided cost-free to government employees through the U.S. Public Health Service, were extended to petit jurors while serving in federal court.

“It’s something I always wondered about as a counselor,” said Kathleen Berman, FOH’s EAP Senior Clinical and Operations Manager who originally responded to Richter. “Who’s taking care of the jurors? These are average, every-day people who have been called in for service. They would never want to listen to any of this horrific testimony, but it’s their job to do just that.”

Recently Chief Judge Linda Reade (N.D. Iowa) presided at the trial of a young man accused, and eventually convicted, of killing his mother and stepfather with a machete. The evidence photos and news reports were particularly graphic.

“The Assistant U.S. Attorney made an effort not to over-do the presentation of photographs that would be distressing,” said Reade. “He merely put into evidence the photos that he needed to in order to make his case. I think that lessened the distress of the jurors.”

After the verdict was read in open court, Reade talked with the jurors to see if anyone was having difficulties. She already had entered an order extending their service, making them eligible to take advantage of EAP counseling. The clerk of court also sent each juror a letter with contact information and information about the service that would be available for 90 days, and also offering the court’s help, if it was needed.

“In an on-going case, if I saw distress or anxiety, I would schedule more breaks and, again, try to minimize their exposure to evidence that’s upsetting,” said Reade, “But sometimes that is hard to do. The facts are what the facts are.”

“Counseling,” said Berman, “is a place for jurors to walk through their experience and unload it. We’re trying to help them take care of themselves and help prevent secondary trauma. Having a professional to talk to who’s not going to judge them and also provide education and resources can be very helpful.”

Judge Richard P. Matsch (D. Colo.) presided at the 1997 trial of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.

“There were times [during the trial] when the emotion of some of the witnesses got across to them. There were times when there was crying,” said Matsch. “But you have to keep the jury calm by your own comments. They need to know what their role is, and what the discipline of the Rules of Evidence imposes on them.”

Looking back on the jury’s seven weeks of trial to determine guilt in the Tsarvnaev case, and nearly four weeks of the penalty phase, Farrell said, “The difficult thing during the trial is that you can’t do anything for the jurors. If you give the appearance there is something traumatic about the experience, you may be seen as influencing the evidence.” 

Post-trial, the court is now doing what it can to help.

Related Topics: District Courts, Jury Service