Michael Leeper can still recall the emotional testimony of the Oklahoma City bombing death penalty trial nearly 20 years ago, the chilling accounts and graphic descriptions of an explosion that killed 168 people and injured 680.
Leeper and the other 11 jurors who agreed to sentence Timothy McVeigh to death left the federal courthouse in Denver with unsettling images and dark thoughts.
“You’re called on a jury, you don’t have a choice of what you listen to and don’t listen to,” said Leeper, 67, who works in real estate in Denver. “Everybody’s going to deal with it in their own way.”
But the jurors in the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — who have had to watch videos and see photos of the explosions and the resulting injuries, including blown-off limbs — will have some help dealing with the trial’s emotional aftermath. Unlike the McVeigh jurors, they will have access to mental health counseling.
US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. will make services available to the 18 jurors and alternates in Tsarnaev’s case, according to court officials. The services are available under the federal Employee Assistance Program, provided by Federal Occupational Health, a component of the US Public Health Service.
Over the eight weeksof the bombing trial, jurors had to view autopsy reports and photos; were shown images of a dead child and a police officer who had been shot in the face; and heard cries of pain on video taken at the scene. They heard a father testify about leaving one child who he knew was dying to tend to another, who lost her leg. Another father testified about the terrifying moments when he did not know what had happened to his toddler son.
Some of the jurors have had visible reactions to some of the more graphic evidence and testimony, growing tearful, or having to look away.
Mental health advocates say jurors could suffer a type of secondary trauma, or post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the graphic testimony, and they praised the court for offering counseling for jurors.
“I think it’s very progressive that the court is reminding them that psychotherapy services are available; that says we’re moving forward as a society,” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, based in Boston. “That’s a positive moment that the judge has the awareness that witnessing some of these violent recreations can be upsetting to people and potentially traumatizing.”
Kristin Dame, a supervisory social services advocate for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, said the risk of emotional trauma is real for anyone in the court system who must hear heart-wrenching testimony, and has to see evidence such as autopsy photos.
“The problem is, if you don’t protect yourself in some way, you can take on the trauma,” she said.
Jurors can develop difficulty sleeping, or nightmares. They may experience irritability, anxiety, or a fear of crowds. They might dwell on the horrific testimony, which can lead to more anxiety and depression.
“They may have trouble not thinking about what they saw in the trial,” Dame said.
One complication for jurors is that they are ordered not to discuss the case while the trial is ongoing.
Duckworth said the Employee Assistance Program counseling could allow jurors to talk about what they experienced.
“The ability to process something that’s upsetting helps many people,” he said. “It can be talking to someone, getting support, processing what you’ve been through and moving on.”
Larry Baerman, clerk of courts for the US District Court in the Northern District of New York, has begun handing out pamphlets titled, “Tips for Coping After Jury Duty,” that includes contact information for psychological and psychiatric organizations and the state’s office of mental health.
Baerman said the courts have only recently begun to recognize that emotional cases can take a toll on jurors long after they leave the courtroom.
“These are the most important people in the system, they’re what make our system different than any system in the world, and we have to do what we can to support them, even when the case is over,” he said.
Baerman said that even civil cases can be difficult for jurors.
“These are real-life things that are happening to people,” he said, recounting a medical malpractice case in which jurors were “in tears because of the testimony we had.”
Leeper, the McVeigh trial juror, said serving on that trial changed his life.
But he notes that, because the trial was moved to Denver from Oklahoma City, where the crime took place, he had less of a connection to the case. Leeper pointed out that jurors in the Boston case might have to relive the trial every year, during the anniversary of the bombings and the Marathon.
He also noted that the Boston jurors saw more video footage of the bombings than the McVeigh jurors. The only electronic evidence presented to jurors in that case was an audio recording of the blast that had been recorded during a court session happening at the time.
“The technology has changed over the last 20 years,” Leeper noted.
Leeper said that most of his fellow jurors have remained friendly over the years, and take solace knowing that someone else experienced what they experienced.
“It’s a blessing, in some ways,” he said. “You’re part of a group, and at least in our situation some of us still get together on a yearly basis, in a shared event. Some didn’t want to, and you have to respect that as well.”