Trauma in the jury box
Gripping, sometimes gruesome testimony and evidence in criminal trials leave some jurors in emotional distress; a Manitoba specialist offers coping strategies to help those who ask
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This article was published 24/02/2018 (1861 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘We are grateful for the exercise of your civic duty. We know it’s a burden. We know that it’s probably not going to be easily forgotten. We know it hasn’t been easy,” defence lawyer Tony Kavanagh told the jury near the end of accused killer Raymond Cormier’s high-profile murder trial that ended with his acquittal this week.
Before they could reach a verdict in the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, jurors had to learn about how the discovery of her petite body, weighed down with rocks and wrapped in a duvet cover, ignited a lengthy murder investigation that culminated in the arrest of the man sitting before them in the prisoner’s box. They had to look at autopsy photos of her decomposed remains, seeing how the river and time could have washed away DNA evidence. They had to listen intently as testimony about the child’s last days made Tina’s family cry out in shock, in grief and in pain, their sobs a reminder of real and lasting tragedy.
Simultaneously, in a second-floor courtroom, another jury heard detailed testimony about the extensive and ultimately fatal injuries suffered by toddler Kierra Williams, a neglected, malnourished and physically abused little girl who died before her second birthday and whose parents were accused of causing her death. That manslaughter trial, for Kierra’s father, Daniel Williams, is expected to wrap up next week.
They are just two of an average of 20 jury trials that happen every year in Winnipeg, and after the verdicts are in, jurors rarely ask for help coping with what they’ve seen and heard. Only five times in the past five years has Manitoba Justice held its pragmatically named jury debriefing program, calling in a contracted trauma specialist to speak to jurors in the aftermath of criminal trials.
Now, amid calls to set a national standard in mental-health support for jurors, a parliamentary committee is studying the issue, hearing from advocates across the country about the counselling supports provided to jurors in each province and what they need most to help them cope.
Gord Favelle, a firefighter and former director of mental health for Manitoba’s Health Department, is the trauma specialist called upon to deliver support under Manitoba’s program. The former jurors who hear his words are part of an exclusive group. Not only have they done their civic duty, they’ve asked for help to cope with what comes after.
They don’t have to say anything; that’s No. 1. Anything they do say can’t leave the room. And there are certain things they aren’t allowed to talk about at all.
They are average citizens, brought together through no choice of their own, obliged to draw from their own life experiences as they set the scales of justice. Those life experiences are bound to affect how they each deal with what they’ve seen and heard during their time on a jury.
“I try to validate and normalize what I’m anticipating they have, and will be, reacting to, and so that way they know already before they even say anything that I understand what they’ve been experiencing,” says Favelle.
His job is to help jurors who ask for help understand they’re having normal reactions to an abnormal event. With him, in a room at the Law Courts Building, they have space to reflect on their experience, understand the potential effects on their mental health and find ways to move on. Favelle doesn’t provide counselling, though he does give referrals for those who need it. His role, he says, is more like “psychological first aid.”
‘I try to validate and normalize what I’m anticipating they have, and will be, reacting to, and so that way they know already before they even say anything that I understand what they’ve been experiencing’
– Gord Favelle
“All I’m doing is helping them understand what they need to do to close the wound, what’s the best way of cleaning the wound, how to bandage it up. And then hopefully that’s sufficient so that they can go on to normal healing. But as we know, sometimes we have a small cut and the cut gets infected and we have to get higher-level services to help deal with the infection or the other complications that can come as a result of it.”
He’ll ask the jurors if they’ve been sleeping — “you know, when your head hits the pillow, do you continue thinking about what had happened and the things you saw?” — and he’ll talk about normal reactions they can expect to have to the abnormal event they’ve just been through.
He can’t talk to them about what happened during their deliberations, which remain secret under Canadian law. He doesn’t ask them to go into detail about disturbing photos, videos or testimony they’ve seen and heard during the trial. While each person’s reaction and ability to cope is different, some things, such as the violent death of a child, are universally traumatic, Favelle says. His past work with first responders, police, firefighters and paramedics, has shown jurors tend to have the same reactions as trained professionals to those traumatic situations. The difference is, “for the jury, they don’t have a choice.”
“They’re going to be viewing those pictures whether they want to or not, so they don’t have a choice. And it depends on their own preparations going into this. I would suspect that the average person going into a trial as a member of the jury probably doesn’t really know what to expect in terms of what their experiences are going to be,” Favelle says.
Manitoba Justice has been offering the program to jurors since 2012, but a debriefing session only runs if at least one juror requests it. When one does, all members of that particular jury are reminded of the program, and others usually join in, says Lisa Ness, the Manitoba Justice acting executive director of court operations.
“They’re definitely made aware of (the program) throughout the process on more than one occasion. For some trials, it’s very obvious that it’s required and for others not so much, depending,” Ness says. The most recent debriefing sessions took place in October and November.
“It’s usually cases that are either high-profile or where there are especially serious crimes. Those are the cases that we’ve had debriefings on so far,” she says. Jurors who need support beyond the debriefing are referred to counselling services in the community, and those costs are borne by the individual, not the province.
Free counselling for jurors is available in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta and is typically limited to a certain number of sessions within a certain time frame after the trial is finished. Ontario offers eight free sessions; Alberta and Saskatchewan each offer four.
Patrick Baillie, a Calgary-based forensic psychologist and lawyer, has spoken in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which is currently studying the mental-health impact of jury duty and the potential it creates for post-traumatic stress. He says a national standard needs to be set, but four free counselling sessions within two months after a trial isn’t enough.
“We start off with a flawed system that doesn’t recognize that people are diving in to an environment that’s foreign to them, and so they may not have the resources around to deal with it,” Baillie says.
‘We start off with a flawed system that doesn’t recognize that people are diving in to an environment that’s foreign to them, and so they may not have the resources around to deal with it’
– Patrick Baillie, a Calgary-based forensic psychologist and lawyer
“None of what’s discussed during deliberations, none of that emotionality, none of that review of the evidence, can ever be disclosed to anybody under Canadian law. So you’ve taken people out of their usual environment, you’ve told them they can’t talk to anybody about what they’re dealing with, you then, by law, prohibit them from ever discussing the deliberations and then you tell them that if they’re having trouble with all of that, they can do four sessions over two months.”
Legislation meant to protect the secrecy of jury deliberations — which Baillie says can often be the most stressful part of a trial for jurors — even prevents jurors from talking about them with a therapist.
Baillie proposed to the parliamentary committee that jurors in Canada should be allowed to discuss their deliberations with a designated service provider who is trained in dealing with vicarious trauma, the kind jurors might expect to experience after going through a murder trial, for example.
People who’ve spent time serving on a jury belong to a club no one else does, Favelle says, and he’s seen some “fairly intense” relationships develop between former jurors because of it.
“I wouldn’t necessarily think or feel that everyone needs to be counselled, but there needs to be counselling available for that very small percentage of people upon whom it has a significant impact,” he says. Generally, getting validation of their reactions can be helpful, even if they feel they don’t need counselling.
“When they realize a number of people — or, in some cases, almost everybody in the group — has had the exact same or similar reaction, then all of a sudden it’s, ‘OK, yeah, maybe it isn’t just me. We all had an experience. We all had difficulty sleeping that night after the trial or after we gave the verdict or after seeing the pictures.’ Whatever it may be. Then they begin to understand that it’s not just them.”
“The lasting impact for anyone who deals with trauma is that the world is a little different after you’ve had that experience,” Favelle says. “You know, you realize that bad things can happen to kids…. So because of that, your world view may be different for the rest of your life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing, it just means that it’s different than it was before you had that experience.”
Understanding Normal Reactions to Jury Stress
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.