Jury Duty: Democracy in Need of Support
By Bruce Brown, District Attorney, 5th Judicial District
Thomas Jefferson considered jury duty the lynchpin of our democracy. In a letter to Thomas Paine in 1789, during the debate that preceded ratification of the United States Constitution, Jefferson wrote: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Ultimately the right was secured in Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution, “The trial of all crime…shall be by jury”.
We take for granted our right to a trial by jury and we as a society do not discuss often enough the responsibilities that accompany this right – jury duty.
Jury duty can carry with it steep material costs, especially for low and middle-income families because the State stipend of fifty-dollars per day does not match pay lost from work. Lengthy trials like many we’ve seen over the past year, create financial hardships that take months or years from which to recover.
And, while there are many young families with parents willing to serve on juries, childcare costs can often far exceed the court’s reimbursement forcing them to carry a heavy financial burden.
Recently a young woman told our District Attorney Office staff that she “kind of liked jury duty” but that her service fell on the day that she and her husband were closing on their first home. They faced the difficult choice of being held in contempt or buying their first home.
Aside from the inconvenience and financial strain, jury duty also can have detrimental psychological effects as dozens of articles and studies noting the strain on jurors – often referred to as ‘vicarious trauma’, a mentally tense state brought about by hearing stories or seeing physical trauma suffered by others. This is particularly true for those who serve as jurors on murder, assault and sex abuse cases.
In 1992, Stanley Kaplan, MD and Carolyn Winget, MA, published an article on the “Occupational Hazards of Jury Duty” in the American Academy of Psychiatric Law that included interviews from 40 jurors in four cases – two murder trials, one child abuse case and an obscenity case.
The researchers reported that twenty-seven of the jurors suffered from an array of illnesses including stress, gastrointestinal pain, heart palpitations, headaches, depression, anxiety, hives and alcohol abuse. While professionals such as prosecutors, law enforcement officers and emergency room physicians choose their line of work accepting trauma exposure, jurors do not volunteer for this duty and courts do little to assist them in dealing with violent material and testimony.
Jury duty can trigger feelings of isolation that long trials create, particularly when coupled with prohibitions that jurors not talk to others, even fellow jurors, about what they are hearing until the conclusion of the trial, leaving little timely outlet for processing their exposure to graphic and disturbing evidence. Many jurors struggle with the burden of responsibility knowing that their vote will permanently affect the suspects, the victims and their families.
Then there is the challenge of separating their personal feelings of antipathy, disgust or sympathy toward the defendant and making decisions based on the evidence presented at the trial.
Since trial by a jury of our peers is so central to protecting our rights and our freedoms, what are we doing to support jurors? Particularly in mountain communities where many residents are seasonal and the jury pool can be small?
Here in Colorado I am working want to work with others to provide key services and support for jurors so that jurors do not become additional crime victims.
The most immediate and critical needs are for financial support to cover childcare costs and counseling to help jurors cope with the trauma of being exposed to sometimes horrifying evidence and testimony. In the coming months we will be working with policy-makers and experts to increase support for jurors and thereby help to strengthen and preserve a key institution that protects our freedom – trial by jury.
Bruce Brown, District Attorney, represents the people of Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek and Lake. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org