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Vicariously Traumatized, Jurors In Murder Trials May Experience Symptoms Similar To PTSD

Vicariously Traumatized, Jurors In Murder Trials May Experience Symptoms Similar To PTSD
Jurors who participated in George Zimmerman's trial may experience psychological effects after reviewing the evidence for so long. apublicdefender

A six-woman jury acquitted George Zimmerman on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter for the death of Trayvon Martin on Saturday evening, after 16 hours of deliberations. Over the course of the five-week trial, these jurors had to relive the events that led Martin to get shot in the chest. But while they are no longer required to report to the courtroom, the jurors will likely be haunted by the case details as they try to resume their lives. 

Murder trials are often emotionally and physically taxing for jurors because they are shown every detail of a case. For sequestered jurors, such as those in the Zimmerman trial, who are prohibited from contact anyone from outside the courtroom and looking at any media that mentions the case, these burdens can be even more difficult.

Vicarious Traumatization

As it's happened in the past, many jurors may face vicarious traumatization, which is caused by becoming so connected to a case that jurors feel emotional trauma as if they had been involved in it themselves. Jurors who experience this can experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"To see the images that they're seeing of this is overwhelming," Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University, told CNN regarding the 2011 Casey Anthony trial. "Everyone's going to have a reason to be impacted by this case. Whether or not you have children of your own, there's no way out of being profoundly influenced."

Casey Anthony, who was charged for the murder of her two-year-old daughter, was also acquitted.

In another case, Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw $15,000 from a Bank of America while her husband and two children were held hostage at their home. Hayes and his accomplice were charged with killing Hawke-Petit and her kids. Her husband, William Petit, manage to escape after being tied up and beaten. Hayes was convicted and sentenced to death, and his accomplice is still awaiting trial.

Events from that case still loom in the minds of its jurors. Two of them, Diane Keim and Paula Calzetta were driving to dinner one night when they accidentally ended up in front of the same Bank of America. Keim nearly vomited and Calzetta experienced a rush of emotions as she recounted all of the details from the case.

"You really do have to take care of yourself, because it's real. All this stuff, once you take it into your consciousness, it's real," Calzetta said.

She initially tried to approach the Hayes trial with an open mind, however, she didn't realize it was affecting her in any sort of physical or emotional way until she broke out in a fever and became sick for the duration of a break in the trial.

Keim, on the other hand, thought that she would be emotionally strong enough to deal with the case after having already gone through breast cancer. But she started experiencing dreams in which Petit's daughters were alive and she was their caretaker. She also had flashbacks of the Petit girls' image while teaching in her fifth-grade classroom.

"Just thinking about what it was like right before they set the fire... This happens periodically, I see this image of the girls being burned," she said. "Something that I see wil trigger the memory of the trial and the pictures.

Jurors also aren't allowed to speak about any trial until a verdict is decided, but for murder trials, this can be especially difficult when the details are so horrific.

"One of the best ways to alleviate stress and anxiety is to talk it through with somebody else," Sonia Chopra, a consultant for the National Jury Project in Oakland, Calif., told CNN. "While the jurors are in trial, that's problematic, because they're not technically supposed to talk about anything hat happens in the courtroom with anyone. For the length of the trial, they're having to just internalize everything that they're hearing and they're seeing."

How Do Jurors Deal With The Stress?

Kaslow suggests that jurors participate in violent cases such as these undergo counseling.

"I think that these jurors need to be very aware that when you get off a case like this, you may need some counseling. This is going to bring up different things for different people, depending on your life story," she said

But while some of the jurors sought counseling after the Hayes case, others remained friends as a way of coping, since the shared experience created a bond unlike any other outside of the courtroom.

"When we get together, we don't need to talk about it. We all just understand," Calzetta said.

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