"I Didn't Know It'd Be So Hard": Jurors' Emotional Reactions to Serving on a Capital Trial

By Antonio, Michael E. | Judicature, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

"I Didn't Know It'd Be So Hard": Jurors' Emotional Reactions to Serving on a Capital Trial


Antonio, Michael E., Judicature


Interviews with jurors who served on capital murder cases revealed that many experienced significant stress and suffered extreme emotional setbacks.

The modern capital punishment system has been challenged by critics on numerous fronts.1 Much less has been written, however, about the psychological and physical impact that murder cases have on capital jurors.2 These individuals, who are called upon by the state to make the ultimate decision about whether the defendant should live or die, will surely be affected, in one way or another, by this experience. This article presents evidence about the severe emotional and psychological duress jurors struggle with as a result of their jury service as revealed through extensive in-depth interviews with jurors who made the critical life or death decision in capital cases.

The anxiety ajuror feels as a result of jury service can come from multiple sources. Jurors have expressed anger at the criminal justice system and the law for making it difficult "to arrive at a fair decision" and also mentioned frustration at having to reach a decision in which "they felt some party would be offended."3 In general, jurors' concerns included a "sense of anxiety for their own safety and well-being" and fear and paranoia about being watched by people inside the courthouse, including the defendant's family.4

These heightened feelings of anxiety and stress could lead to a variety of health problems. Indeed, researchers studying criminal cases have identified "one or more physical and/or psychological symptoms that could be related to jury duty."5 These included reoccurring thoughts about the trial that would keep the jurors awake at night or nightmares about the crime and the defendant, stomach pains, nervousness, tension, shaking, headaches, heart palpitations, sexual inhibitions, depression, anorexia, faintness, numbness, chest pain, and hives.6

Research also has shown differing levels of stress depending upon the case. Jurors who served on traumatic cases (i.e. murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, and child abuse) were more likely to experience symptoms associated with depression than were jurors serving on non-traumatic trials.7 Researchers in one study found that jurors in murder cases were particularly upset by the photographs of the victim, the blood tainted physical evidence from the crime scene, and having to sentence the defendant to death.8 Other research has compared differences in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms among jurors in capital cases who made die life or death decision. Findings showed "jurors whose jury panel rendered a death penalty did sustain greater PTSD symptoms than did jurors whose jury panel rendered a life sentence."9

Overall, these findings indicate that capital jurors experience significant stress when faced with the task of imposing the ultimate punishment of death, whereas jurors in non-capital trials are spared such physical and emotional stress. Critics of the death penalty have only begun to examine the impact that serving on a capital trial has on jurors who must make the decision of whether the defendant should live or die. What other aspects of a capital murder trial have jurors found stressful, how do they cope with this stress, and how has their experience affected their lives?

This article analyzes data gathered from the Capital Jury Project (CJP), a national study of the exercise of sentencing discretion in capital cases. The focus of this analysis is an examination of jurors' narrative accounts to determine how serving as a capital juror affected them both emotionally and physically. The findings raise important questions about the personal costs jurors endure. Should ordinary citizens be put in situations where they may be forced to view gruesome photographs of victims' bodies, hear horrifying stories of how a person was murdered, and be called upon to sentence a person to death? …

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