Monday, April 16, 2007
Gruesome evidence may forever haunt jurors
Amy L. Edwards
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 15, 2007
By day, Thais Prado saw the chilling evidence: photos of Jessica Lunsford's corpse, her small wrists bound with wire, garbage bags that held the 9-year-old when she was buried alive.
By night, Prado grew paranoid.
She couldn't sleep. She left all the lights on. She opened the closet to make sure no one was hiding inside.
Even after Prado and her fellow jurors convicted John Couey in March for kidnapping, raping and killing Jessica, the 20-year-old Miami woman --youngest of the 12 jurors -- said the case continued to haunt her."A couple nights have already been sleepless for me," Prado said a week after the jury recommended Couey be executed.Legal experts say reactions such as Prado's are not uncommon for jurors who serve on trials at which they must view gruesome evidence, such as that from homicides or sexual battery of children."Certainly, there can be post-traumatic-stress syndrome simply from being on a jury," said Mary Carol Parker, who studies juries as director of the legal-studies program at Maryville University in St. Louis.
Jurors may experience sleepless nights, relationship strains, emotional trauma and even physical ailments as a result of their service. And while some experts and legal officials think jurors should be offered counseling services after a disturbing trial, there are few formal programs nationwide -- and none in Florida.But that could be changing for some Central Florida jurors.
Several public agencies in Seminole County, in the 18th Judicial Circuit, want to test a pilot "jury-debriefing program" that would allow certain jurors after a trial to meet with a volunteer certified crisis responder to learn coping mechanisms before they return home.
Jury debriefings are short group sessions in which the jurors explore and better understand their emotional reaction to the trial and jury service. The debriefers typically describe symptoms associated with juror stress and make recommendations about appropriate stress-management techniques, according to the National Center for State Courts."It's a way of preparing them for some of their reactions," said Debra Wagner, who coordinates victim services for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office and has helped plan the pilot program. "It helps normalize the event for them."
Counseling not mandatory
In 2003, a Florida Supreme Court administrative order gave judges the discretion to allow stressed jurors to undergo "debriefing sessions," but the order did not establish a formal program or provide funding.
None of the Central Florida court officials contacted for this story said they could recall referring a juror to counseling, though experts say a juror should seek medical help if he or she still feels traumatized two weeks after a trial ends.
Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies with the National Center for State Courts, said few formal juror-counseling programs exist nationally."It's probably not being done as often as it should," Hannaford-Agor said. "Most administrative judges aren't aware of the [mental-health] resources that are in their community that could be called upon if necessary."In one 14-state study -- the Capital Jury Project -- about 60 percent of the nearly 1,200 jurors who served on capital trials said they found the experience emotionally upsetting, said Wanda Foglia, a professor of law and justice studies at Rowan University in New Jersey and one of the researchers.
More than a quarter of the jurors in cases where the death penalty was an option described problems such as feeling paranoid, breaking down in tears, vomiting, indigestion and feeling haunted by the experience."Some of the jurors said they thought they should be given counseling after the trial," Foglia said.Troubled sleepNow, one month after the Couey trial, Prado said her nightmares have subsided and she can sleep. But she thinks counseling should have been offered to the jury.
Fellow juror Osvaldo Pradere, 47, agreed."The evidence did stress me because I do have a young daughter myself," Pradere said. "I did lose some sleep. Those images kept popping back up."Serving on a criminal trial can be profoundly altering for some, according to jurors who served on trials focused on other heinous crimes, such as the Danny Rolling case, in which five college students were slain in Gainesville and their bodies mutilated in 1990."I looked at life differently after that trial," Rolling juror Arlie Staab told the Sentinel last year.
Other recent high-profile trials in Central Florida featuring gruesome evidence include the Deltona massacre, in which six people were beaten to death with baseball bats in 2004.After last year's trial, one juror told the Sentinel it was difficult for jurors to view the large, bloody photographs and other evidence.For some of those working in Central Florida's criminal-justice and court systems, counseling for jurors seems like a given.
After all, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said, law-enforcement officers can receive counseling if they have been emotionally affected by their duties."Certainly, if as a result of that public service . . . [jurors] need some counseling because of the outrageous, violent things they've had to see, then we should make that available to them," Judd said. "It's available to my deputies."Prosecutor Brad Copley, who often handles child-pornography cases in the 10th Judicial Circuit, made up of Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, said he thinks the court system has a responsibility to help jurors if they have been traumatized by evidence.
When "we see people in a jury box, they have to see this stuff . . . and I've seen their reaction many times when they watch it," Copley said at a recent news conference announcing child-pornography-possession arrests. "No normal human being can imagine what this is until you see it. You just don't think that way."
Amy L. Edwards can be reached at email@example.com or 863-422-3395.