Can Serving on a Jury Be Harmful?

Part 2 of 3: The psychological aspects related to jury service.

Posted May 03, 2019

Have you ever served on a jury? It can be fascinating and probably unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. A group of strangers listen to and view evidence about an individual’s (or entity’s) alleged criminal or harmful behavior to another. Attorneys and witnesses may do their best to influence the jury to “see things their way.” After all sides present evidence and the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, the judge delivers instructions to the jury about the law and how to apply it in the case before them. Then, the jury retires to a private room where they discuss the case until they can render a verdict (in extreme cases, no verdict can be reached because the jury is hopelessly deadlocked).

The jury occupies an extremely important role in the American Justice System. Yet, it sometimes appears that the interests of jurors are not as highly valued as those of the defendant or litigants. Hafemeister (1993) suggests that because jurors’ decision-making is performed privately (no requirement that a juror provide to the court, or even fellow jurors, the rationale for their verdict), “there may be a tendency to take jurors for granted and to assume they are relatively unaffected by their jury duties” (p. 184). Although this assumption may stem from the passive or detached way they respond in court or during jury deliberations, jury service can have an adverse effect on some jurors.

Kaplan and Winget (1992) conducted a study about the physical and psychological hazards when serving in stressful criminal jury trials. The stressors may have been the:

  • nature of the trial
  • trial’s duration
  • testimony and evidence presented
  • difficulty of determining guilt or innocence
  • how well the jurors got along
  • length of sequestration
  • how the public felt about the case
  • backgrounds of the jurors.

About two-thirds of jurors admitted to experiencing at least one physical and/or psychological symptom, ranging from transient experiences to significant illnesses (e.g., sleeplessness, intestinal problems, tension, headaches, heart palpitations, and depression). Others have found that jurors in difficult cases may experience weight loss, nervousness, hypervigilance, and mental exhaustion (Hafemeister, 1993). 

The need for jurors to remain impartial and suppress their emotional responses has also been researched. Many trials, both criminal and civil, involve exposure to disturbing graphics or testimony where reactions such as horror, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, sympathy, and disgust may be elicited. Yet, jurors are instructed to remain neutral. Having to fend off such reactions may be very difficult; especially, if the emotional stimuli are presented without breaks (Dabbs, 1992). Such difficulty is further heightened in long trials when jurors cannot talk about the case with anyone. Dabbs discusses how jurors may feel guilty if they believe they did not fulfill the expectation of remaining unemotional and thus worried about whether they assured the defendant a fair trial.

Adverse reactions are not limited to the trial. There is great pressure for jurors to agree on a verdict; consequently, jury deliberations involve psychological processes that encourage consensus. How the group operates affects individual judgment and is one of the most important aspects of jury decision-making. Shuman et al. (1994) explore how group dynamics influence jurors to change their judgments through

  • the exchange of information among the jurors (informational influence) and
  • jurors conforming to the desires of the other jurors (normative influence)

Group dynamics affect a juror’s decision-making and can produce stress from suppression of thoughts and ideas as well as the pressure to comply. For example,

  • Those jurors whose opinions are in the minority may change to be among the majority.
    • Indeed, there is pressure to do so by the jurors themselves so that they will not have a “hung jury.”
  • Efforts to reach consensus may be through persuasion or perhaps making minority opinion holders feel guilty, uninformed, or isolated.
    • Assertive jurors may intimidate others and dismiss their opinions.
  • Because jurors cannot discuss the case facts with those they know and trust, but rather can do so only with the other jurors who are strangers, can be isolating and influence the suppression of opposing thoughts and opinions.
  • Strong group dynamics may fuel a tendency not to fully consider each juror’s arguments, and perhaps make a “rush to judgment.”
  • Indeed, there is pressure to do so by the jurors themselves so that they will not have a “hung jury.”
  • Assertive jurors may intimidate others and dismiss their opinions.

The end of the trial is not always the end of possible adverse psychological experiences. If the case was high profile, media may seek jurors’ comments and insights. Even if no interviews are conducted, people may comment publicly on the jury’s verdict. Negative or critical remarks can make the jurors feel defensive or even question whether they made the right decision. Insecurity may develop if the decision on the case is overturned on appeal. Moreover, if the appeal is granted on a technicality, jurors may feel frustrated or angered that they went through the process and endured their various hardships (Dabbs, 1992).

Given that depression (mood disorder), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and stress are among the most serious psychological conditions emanating from certain cases, how can the occurrence of such effects be lessened?

  • Prior to the commencement of the trial, judges can instruct jurors about negative effects that may arise so as to be pre-warned and better prepared.
  • Some courts use debriefing (a post-trial intervention to address adverse effects) that can be conducted by mental health professionals or the judge.
    • Jurors can express as well as discover that they were not the only ones who felt that way.
    • The debriefing may also help jurors better understand what they are experiencing now or what they may experience in the future.
  • For those who want or may need more intensive exploration of their experiences and reactions, mental health counseling is suggested.
  • Jurors can express as well as discover that they were not the only ones who felt that way.
  • The debriefing may also help jurors better understand what they are experiencing now or what they may experience in the future.

As mentioned in “Do You Want to be a Juror? Part 1,” jury participation can elicit many positive experiences. In reality, the most adverse experience for many individuals is that of inconvenience (see “How Does the System Treat You as  a Juror? Part 3”). The risk of significant harmful consequences is quite low and when comparing such risk to that of jeopardizing our constitutional right to a trial by a jury representative of our community, we gain a better perspective in recognizing and affirming this means of justice and freedom.

References

Dabbs, M. O. (1992). Jury traumatization in high profile criminal trials: A case for crisis debriefing, Law & Psychology Review, 16, 201-216.

Hafemeister, T. L. (1993). Legal report: Juror stress. Violence and Victims, 8, 177-186.

Kaplan, S. M., & Winget, C. (1992). The occupational hazards of jury duty. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 20, 325-333. Retrieved from  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e4e5/c5bac614eb69bd73e9c460f8bd721ff090b2.pdf

Shuman, D. W., Hamilton, J. A., Daley, C. E., Behinfar, D. J., Bitner, R. H., Bolton, D.,… Whitmore, J.J.  (1994). The health effects of jury service. Law & Psychology Review, 18, 267-307.