Jurors strive to reclaim their lives -- Death cases cause stress

San Francisco Chronicle December 20, 2004

One juror was so rundown she ended up in the hospital. Another anguished over being called a murderer by children at his son's school. A 3rd has suffered from what her therapist diagnosed as post traumatic stress.

The trial of Scott Peterson is over, the verdict is in, but for those who sat in judgment the turmoil has not ended. The jurors, who watched and took notes through 6 months of often wrenching testimony, saw photos outside the range of what they could have imagined and were twice sequestered before sentencing Peterson to die for the murder of his wife and unborn child, are left with the remnants of a profound and disturbing experience. Now, as they return to carpools, office work and holiday plans, some talked in recent days about how hard it is to reclaim their prior lives.

"There are a lot of things going on right now," said juror Gregory Beratlis. "I have a son in a public high school who is daily being told his father is a murderer. I've had threatening messages. At work, everyone says, 'That's you. You're that guy.' My anonymity is gone. I should have realized it, but it's kind of scary. My life is not normal, not yet."

Most experience stress

And jurors on other high-profile cases say it might be a while before it is. Psychologists and court experts agree that little is done to prepare jurors for what they might encounter at the end of a capital case. The vast majority of people on death penalty juries -- 86 % according to one survey done by the National Center for State Courts -- experienced stress while on the jury. Almost half who responded to the same survey said they continued to have disturbing memories more than three weeks after the trial ended.

Richelle Nice, a member of the Peterson jury, said she feels numb and "clouded." She said the trial and post trial frenzy left her so physically rundown from lack of sleep and food that she developed a kidney infection and ended up in the hospital. Now she's trying to tackle a list that includes finding a job and straightening out her health insurance. Until the Peterson trial, she had never spent a night away from her four sons.

What she wants most, she said, is just to be able to take them to school again.

"Being a juror is almost a sick process," she said. "They expect you to be robots. We are humans. We have emotions and thoughts. No one has offered to help."

Psychologists know that witnessing violence second-hand can cause or exacerbate anxiety, sleep disturbances and depression in some people. Most people are resilient, experts say, and will recover quickly with few lasting effects. But those who are most vulnerable -- particularly those who have other stresses such as the recent loss of a spouse, a health- or work-related problem -- may have a harder time recovering.

Joseph Rice, a clinical psychologist and jury consultant who is president of Jury Research Institute in Arizona, said he's seen layers of reactions after lengthy trials. Most jurors feel pent-up anxiety and energy when the trial ends. Those on death penalty cases also may feel emotionally drained and, particularly if they were sequestered, isolated. Then there is the public scrutiny, from media, co-workers or strangers in a store.

Recognized at Costco

"I was with my daughter at Costco in dark glasses and people recognized me," said Frances Gorman, who was removed from the Peterson jury before deliberations began, then had to put up with public speculation about why, without being able to explain her side of the story. She was kicked off after she briefly looked up a tidal chart online, something she thought at the time was minor and would help clarify some testimony. She was unprepared for the reaction, and felt helpless, she said. She had trouble sleeping and eating. "I didn't want to read the paper or see the news accounts," she said. "5 or 6 days later I had a meltdown. I was embarrassed to go back to work."

Now that the gag order is over and she can talk publicly, she said, she's feeling better, but still can't drive by the San Mateo County courthouse in Redwood City, where the trial took place, without averting her eyes. "I'm sure in some way this will always be with me," she said.

Jurors in other high-profile cases say much the same thing. Some said they resumed their lives with little trouble, slipping back into the comfort of routine, but others had problems readjusting. A juror in the 1991 King beating case, himself a psychiatric technician, said he was so depressed that he needed therapy and medication for almost a year afterward.

"I had bad dreams. It was quite intense," said Gerald Miller, who also suffered from an ulcer after the trial.

"It's almost a post traumatic stress disorder," said Karen Fleming-Ginn, a psychologist who is a jury consultant based in Walnut Creek. "People don't understand what they've been through. ... I've spoken to probably 1,000 jurors after the fact and people don't know what impact it will have. People are waking up in the middle of the night years after a case. They are vividly remembering the look in a witness' eyes. There is a lot of inner turmoil that doesn't get a chance to manifest itself in a place where it's acceptable."

Support from group

The members of one
Santa Clara County jury found support in each other. Almost four years after sentencing Wesley Shermantine Jr. to die for four murders, they still meet at least twice a year.

"I will never, ever forget it," said Dorothy Stern, a Shermantine juror.

"It's something you live with, like a car accident or a death in the family. It feels like it was just yesterday."

David Allcott, the jury foreman, said he's been tempted to send the Peterson jurors a note saying, "You did great and I am proud of you." He said he's certain there must be parallels to his post-trial experience. Allcott, a software consultant in San Jose, said he was drained after the Shermantine trial ended. One of the toughest things, he said, was being a liberal and deciding to vote for the death penalty, then having to discuss it later with his friends. But, he said, it made him clarify how he felt. Although he was in his early 40s at the time, he describes the experience like a coming of age where he seriously started pondering the true meaning of values like justice and truth.

"The case didn't continue to trouble me but it woke me up to how casually I had been observing violence," he said. "Now it's much more personal. I realize that it's a real cost someone is paying."

Whenever he can, he goes to the jury reunion. So does Stern, who said that after the trial she temporarily asked for a less stressful job at the firm where she'd worked as a satellite systems engineer. What stayed with her the longest, she said, was testimony from victims during the penalty phase who talked about horrific sexual assaults.

Studied victim's face

She became, she said, hyper-cautious about her own young daughter. She repeatedly went to a Web site devoted to one victim, one of two girls whose bodies were never found. She stared at the girl's face and then she looked at a picture of Shermantine. She learned that other jurors did that too. "I was mad at him for (forcing me) to decide whether he lives or dies," she said. After a year, she returned to her former job and life settled down, she said. But "the jury staying close was our best therapy."

Just recently Stern removed the word "Jury" from the e-mail communication they send each other. Now it just says, "Friends."

Allcott said that, despite the stress, he felt proud of the work done by the Shermantine jurors. Peterson jurors said they felt the same way.

"It was so emotional to have to come up with the decision we did," said Peterson juror Beratlis. "We really thought about it and anguished over this. What we did makes me feel good."

All those who responded in the National Center for State Courts survey also said they were proud, but many thought help should be offered to those who suffered from stress -- which few counties do.

"This is where the system sells jurors short," said Rice, the jury consultant. "We've put them in a surreal experience, then we just walk on to the next case. I think it is unfair to jurors."
Source: San Francisco Chronicle