NEW YORK — For one elderly juror, it was the picture of the murder victim with her throat slashed and a large footprint on her chest. She dreamed about it long after the verdict.
For another juror, it was the videotape of police digging up a murder victim's head from a garden. For weeks, when she looked out her kitchen window at her own garden, her mind's eye saw that head.
And after the trial of a man who raped and murdered a young woman in her home, a 41-year-old female juror told researchers, "I'm paranoid. I can't shake it. I went to the Smoky Mountains and twice I ran into a fellow who looked like him. I flipped out. I got hysterical, shook and just ran. . . . I dreamed he broke into my apartment on several occasions. Same dream over and over. . . . I'd wake up in a cold sweat."
For some jury members, the experience of being thrust into gut-wrenching trials exacts a psychological toll, one that can persist long after a verdict.
A few courts have been experimenting with debriefing sessions by mental health professionals after verdicts are reached, to let jurors try to unload their emotions and perhaps ease or avoid later distress.
Court officials and mental health professionals say such sessions probably are not needed for routine cases, though some judges informally debrief juries on their own anyway. But debriefings by experts might help after trials with such warning signs as a long duration, grisly crimes, intense media coverage, graphic testimony and disturbing pictures, tense deliberations and a sequestered jury.
Not only are jurors in such trials exposed to stomach-churning details of crimes--things they may never have encountered before--but they are not allowed to discuss the experience before deliberations.
That's just the opposite of what mental health experts recommend for people exposed to trauma.
"We do a very cruel thing to jurors, psychologically, during trials," said Judge Dennis M. Sweeney of the circuit court for Howard County, Md. "We tell them they can't talk to anybody during the trial about the case. . . . That's not a natural thing for people."
Indeed, said psychiatry professor Roger Bell of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, "When we experience a traumatic event, the first thing we want to do is we want to talk about it, because the inside of us is just filled with feeling. . . . It might be with revulsion if you see a decapitated body, or see what a male might do to a child."
Jurors also may feel angered and frustrated by the legal process and concerned about community reaction to their decisions.
The result of all that can be sleeplessness, unwanted thoughts about the trial, startled reactions to reminders of the case, general anxiety and other symptoms.
The topic of juror stress has caught the attention of the courts and researchers only in the past few years, said Thomas Hafemeister of the Institute on Mental Disability and the Law, part of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.
One explanation is that evidence these days may be more graphic and upsetting, said Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies, which also is part of the national center.
"Rather than having the chalk marks on the pavement as to where the body was," he said, "you've now got a videotape--a color videotape."
One videotape led viewers through a series of rooms to discover a grisly crime scene.
"You're sitting there with the full knowledge that one of these rooms is going to be it. Otherwise, they wouldn't be there," Munsterman said. "It's almost Hitchcock."
A major goal of debriefings is to let jurors talk about their emotional reactions to a trial, "to go through the process of discharging the emotion that's related to it," said Bell, who has been involved in several such sessions.
Hafemeister, a psychologist and lawyer who has debriefed members of two juries, said, "We let them know that they weren't alone, that other people were feeling the same thing they did."
Jurors also helped each other by declaring that they had worked hard to reach a verdict and that they need not have second thoughts, Hafemeister said.
The idea of debriefings has raised some concerns, such as the possibility that jurors might reveal misconduct that occurred in their deliberations that could trigger attempts to overturn verdicts.
But Sweeney noted that jurors already are quoted by the news media.
"I have become converted to the idea that the risk of having some jury verdict overturned (is outweighed) by the need to be more humane toward jurors and to look out for their needs also," he said.