Juror Stress

By Hafemeister, Thomas L. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Juror Stress


Hafemeister, Thomas L., Violence and Victims


Juries have long piqued the interest of both society and social scientists. The idea of twelve men and women sitting collectively to decide the fate of a criminal defendant or a set of civil litigants triggers our imagination. Yet we know very little about the decision-making process of a jury. Typically the jurors sit stone-faced throughout the trial, retreat behind closed doors to reach their verdict, and then reappear to impassively present a verdict that provides few, if any, clues of the bases for their decision or the process whereby they made that decision.

Yet, this is not some remote experience that has no personal relevance. Most of us, at one time or another, will be called for jury duty. Serving as a juror is a civic duty and failing to respond to this call subjects the individual to judicial sanctions. Furthermore, most jurors take these responsibilities very seriously and attempt to fulfill their duty to the best of their abilities.

The public perception of this process is driven by a relatively limited number of media portrayals. For example, a classic film from the 1950s entitled Twelve Angry Men is set entirely inside the jury room and attempts to provide a picture of how the jurydeliberation process works. Henry Fonda plays the role of one of twelve jurors in a criminal trial. He begins the movie as the single juror resisting a guilty verdict, but following a long, exhausting, and often-times acrimonious debate, he persuades the jury to return a not guilty verdict. The deliberations force the jurors, one by one, to examine their assumptions about life and the world around them. The deliberation process was intense; and for at least one of the jurors, it was a shattering experience.

Recent media reports have similarly focused on the impact of the trial process on the jurors themselves, exploring the intense pressures and stress they may be required to undergo. For example, in the Reginald O. Denny beating case in Los Angeles, one juror was removed by the judge after fellow jurors complained that she was frequently forgetful, uncomprehending, and a source of constant aggravation. At the same time, the judge refused to remove another juror who was reported to have suffered a "breakdown," running through the hall of the hotel where the jury was sequestered shouting: "I can't take it any more." A third juror was dismissed and replaced with an alternate juror because of "personal problems," leading the judge to order the jury to start their deliberations over again (Hamilton, 1993). Deliberations were suspended one day because a juror complained of high blood pressure and on another day because a juror experienced an upset stomach, while another juror was taken to a hospital for treatment of an undisclosed medical problem (Boyer, 1993; Spolar & Hamilton, 1993). When the final verdict was read, one juror quietly sobbed while the forewoman put a comforting arm around her shoulders. These various reported responses may indicate and reflect jurors experiencing high levels of stress.

While the effects of the Denny case on the jurors is just being explored, the trial that has probably to date most clearly demonstrated the extent of the pressure to which jurors can be exposed is the initial Rodney King beating trial. Asserting that their experiences could be faced by anyone who sits as a juror on a lengthy trial, a magazine article was published describing the trauma undergone by the jurors in that trial and its effects on their li ves (Davis, 1993). The report stated that the jurors experienced sleep loss, weight loss, nervousness, hypervigilance, tearfulness, and a disruption of family relationships, and were left feeling mentally exhausted and distraught. After the trial, they were confronted by the press and were told by local police not to remain in their homes for a period of time. One juror feared for her job after there was a bomb threat at her workplace. Another juror slept with an axe, while a third juror bought a gun. …

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