Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2003

Understanding Jurors
Jury debriefing in Yamhill County
By Roi Holt, Janvier Slick & Amy Rayborn

In September of 1998, John L. Collins, presiding judge in Yamhill County, Oregon requested assistance for a jury completing an intense trial involving the torture and prolonged death of a young man. This first and subsequent jury debriefings identified the need for this service, and led to the development of a jury survey. One hundred and one Yamhill County jurors, who served on child sexual abuse or homicide cases, were queried, with 55 responding. The National Center for State Courts, under a grant from the State Justice Institute (No.SJI-94-12K-B-320), had previously developed a jury survey for research purposes. This was used, with the addition of questions regarding what jurors found most helpful during debriefings. Results of this survey, and information gleaned from jurors during debriefings, support the observations in this article.

The Yamhill County Jury Survey (YCJS) confirmed that trial service could place a heavy psychological burden on some jurors, particularly in cases involving heinous acts such as child abuse or homicide.1

Jurors, for the most part, consider the task of jury service to be a serious one, and a service to which they give considerable time, effort and commitment. Unfortunately, it can produce what one juror defined as 'the best and the worst experience of my life.' Bienen describes jury service in this way: 'For many it is a rewarding experience, one that is little different from the ordinary.'2 Bienen’s analysis is consistent with responses from Yamhill County jurors. Overall, 45 percent in the YCJS indicated they experienced some stress from the trial. However, our statistics indicated that 28 percent of respondents were not at all affected, showing that 'some jurors may easily handle these intense psychological pressures.'3

A significant number reported that some aspects of jury service were perceived as beneficial. More than 25 percent noted on the survey their positive experiences, such as 'I was left with a positive feeling in how our legal system works. Thank you for providing me with this experience…;' 'Jury duty was a privilege;' 'I was glad I was able to serve…;' 'If I had a choice to do it again I would.;' and , 'Although the trial that I was a juror on was a very traumatic and emotional trial, I think it was a good experience.'

As jurors are generally representative of the community, and may have no experience with the criminal justice system or with shocking, gruesome crimes, they may have no frame of reference for what lies ahead. Once voir dire is completed, jurors abruptly move from inactivity to being sworn in, with no time to adjust. Having spent hours expecting to be dismissed, jurors are suddenly charged with an enormous responsibility. They are asked to make a critical decision about the future of another human being, in some cases, literally a life or death decision. While this survey did not address the death penalty issue, those in debriefings said, 'I was tied up in knots, deciding this man’s fate,' and, 'It was traumatic to make a decision regarding the fate of a person.'

Once sworn in, jurors lose control over significant aspects of their lives. The court suddenly dictates meals, bathroom breaks, even their ability to talk to one another. Adding to this are concerns about work and family, disruption to normal routines, and the daily hassle of finding a parking space or childcare. This has been described as jurors becoming 'involuntary participants who have no representation.'4 One debriefing participant observed, 'Jurors are outsiders brought into the court’s routine and (court) procedures get in the way of human beings.'

Once seated, the jury panel may be exposed to extremely graphic material seldom seen by the general public. 'Many trials expose them to the grisly details of heinous acts…graphic displays, coupled with high levels of emotion, help set the psychological stage for the extreme stress placed on the average juror.'5

Jurors are required to listen repeatedly to detailed testimony about the nature and depth of child abuse, torture or murder. They view photographs and other evidence — perhaps a larger-than-life PowerPoint presentation of a homicide. Jurors are visually and auditorily assaulted, often for days, weeks or months on end. 'Jurors will not be asked to relive these events a single time. Typically, they will relive them over and over as multiple witnesses and presentations emphasize the accuracy of the lawyer’s portrayal of the events.'6 In the YCJS, 50 percent of jurors indicated that visual evidence (photos and other materials) and 48 percent indicated that verbal graphic descriptions of the crimes were the most disturbing aspects of a trial. During debriefings many jurors commented on the stress created by exposure to evidence in trial.

In addition to the nature of the material presented as evidence, requiring jurors to maintain complete silence about all facets of the trial creates an unreal and unhealthy atmosphere. These combined factors foster an ideal climate for the development of physical and psychological trauma. Denying jurors the opportunity to ask questions, to express opinions or to respond to their experiences may compound this. Jurors are expected to suppress all reactions and become unfeeling, objective adjudicators. 'Since jurors are prohibited from discussing a trial with anyone until its conclusion, long trials extend the period of time when jurors are forced to internalize their stress. Typically, jurors are even prohibited from discussing what they hear during a trial with fellow jurors until all the evidence is presented.'7 These restrictions place an almost impossible constraint upon people who, by now, often feel powerless, helpless and isolated. Further, 'for persons who rely on external contacts and as a means of accepting and processing knowledge, this silence is an excruciating punishment.'8 YCJS respondents repeated this theme by making comments such as 'the other thing that was extremely stressful was not being able to talk about how we felt while the trial was going on,' and 'I had to try and talk it out with myself after the day was over. It was difficult not to talk to any of the jurors.'

Yamhill County jurors were asked several questions that specifically dealt with the after-effects of their jury service, including, 'I have re-experienced disturbing memories of my jury duty.' Over 40 percent of Yamhill County jurors reported that they sometimes see, hear or dream things that reminds them of the trial. Having participated in a case involving the murder of a teenage girl, one juror wrote, 'When I see young girls walking, I picture them dead or someone attacking them, or that their parents are going to ask ‘Why my child? Why?’'

For some, these reminders last a prolonged period of time. One respondent felt the effects after one month; two said they felt the effects two months after the trial; six respondents said they were experiencing effects six to 12 months afterwards; and three reported after-effects up to a year later.

Although this survey did not support or confirm it, other researchers agree that debriefings can be beneficial and provide several functions, not the least of which is to allow jurors to ventilate and express any concerns, fears or worries brought on by juror service. It provides a forum in which jurors can release frustration, anger or anxiety that may have developed during the trial. Jurors can do this with a trained professional who has an understanding of the issues they face, and also with others who shared their experience. While one juror does not respond exactly the same as the next, those who came to the Yamhill County debriefings voiced very similar reactions, emotions and responses.

Jurors were evenly split about the ameliorating effect of debriefing attendance. Of the 25 jurors responding to distress questions within the survey, there were no significant differences between those who were debriefed and those who where not. The responses were almost equally distributed on all items including the amount of distress and the length of time since jury duty.

Eighty-six percent of jurors who attended debriefings in Yamhill County agreed that it was useful to debrief their jury experience after a difficult trial. They found that the opportunity to participate in a facilitated, organized discussion allowed them the opportunity to discuss their reactions to that experience. 'I thought the debriefing was extremely helpful. It confirmed that what I was feeling was normal and it helped to talk with other jurors outside the courtroom experience.'

Of those who attended a debriefing and returned a YSCJ survey 88.9 percent overwhelmingly named the opportunity to talk as the main source of help during the debriefing process. They found that the confirmation gained from the debriefing process was extremely validating. It confirmed that their reactions were similar to those of others: 'only those who were on jury duty with me understand what it was like.' For those who participated in debriefing, it provided an opportunity for a post-trial talk with other jurors, and this was significant to the healing of 51 percent of respondents.

The 27 jurors surveyed who attended a debriefing found the following most valuable:

85.2 percent saw the presence of other jurors at the debriefing to be positive.

85.2 percent found talking with co-jurors to be positive.

77.8 percent believed validation from co-jurors regarding feelings and perceptions of the jury experience to be helpful.

77.8 percent believed validation or confirmation of their experience from the entire debriefing process was helpful.

Jurors also mention feeling connected to the other jurors as an important source of support. In their 1993 article on jury debriefing, Feldman and Bell state, 'this degree of cohesion is important in minimizing psychic trauma during trials. The individual members seemed to use this cohesion to take the place of their need to talk about the case.'9 Bienen describes jury duty as 'a strange social circumstance. For an isolated period in their lives, jurors live together and share the intimate aspects of daily life.'10 For those jurors who need to reconnect, and for those who need to talk, the jury debriefing can bring needed closure and help minimize the amount of residual stress.

Numerous jurors commented on the value of the debriefing because it brought a sense of closure to the jury experience. 'Immediately after the trial I just felt like I was hanging still because it had been so emotional, and we jurors felt very connected — then all of a sudden you give your verdict and you leave the courtroom, all going your separate ways. There wasn’t closure yet.'

Other reasons for debriefing include assisting the jurors in returning to normal after living in a state of disruption, by integrating the jury experience into their lives, and in diminishing the effects of exposure to potentially harmful testimony and evidence. Jury debriefing provides a structured group discussion designed to alleviate stress and reduce trauma. It allows jurors to talk about disturbing events that were felt, seen or heard during the trial. The group discussion can be a time of healing, a chance to release or to rid jurors of any shadows remaining from the trial. Seventy-eight percent of the jurors who attended debriefings related that it also helped them put the experience into perspective through validation that they received from other jurors. Eighty-two percent of those jurors said that, when combined with doing so in the presence of co-jurors, the release of stress was more confirmed.

Debriefings also serve to identify those having particular severe reactions to jury service. Debriefers can predict possible future 'trigger' events and suggest coping mechanisms. Various researchers mention trigger events, such as 'even after 18 months a variety of stimuli elicited vivid memories of the events leading to the trial (such as squealing tires).'11 One male YCJS respondent wrote, 'I went to the debriefing ‘to observe,’ not thinking it was appropriate for me. I participated as much as everyone else when ‘triggers’ were pressed and I felt comfortable about not making a fool of myself.' Another consideration is 'triggers' that exist for some jurors because of past trauma such as child abuse. Some jurors have been victims themselves, while others have endured the agony of their children being victimized. Another juror related in debriefing that her mother had been the victim of childhood sexual abuse, and that serving on that type of criminal trial made it clear to her the horrors that her mother had been forced to endure. When these issues are raised jurors are encouraged to seek additional ongoing support and referrals are provided.

Identified as the most important factor in creating juror comfort for 80.8 percent of all jurors attending debriefings was the non-judgmental and reassuring manner of the debriefers. The sincere warmth and understanding of debriefers is critical to fostering a supportive and productive atmosphere that allows for discussion and learning. Jurors need the recognition, appreciation and positive feedback given by debriefers, as well as contact with co-jurors.

Jurors were asked to define other helpful factors during the debriefing. The presence of co-jurors during debriefing was very important (82.1 percent). The validation and confirmation of feelings and of experiences received from fellow jurors and debriefers were equally rated (77.8 percent). Jurors indicated that information they learned (46 percent) and questions asked by the debriefers (44 percent) were less helpful.

In Yamhill County the jury coordinator works closely with jurors during their service and is generally seen as a positive support. Because of this relationship, she served as a bridge between the jurors and the debriefers. In the YCJS, 71.4 percent of jurors identified the jury coordinator as the second most important factor in helping them feel comfortable with the debriefing. A juror said, 'The jury coordinator does an excellent job,' '… was very helpful and professional…made the experience as pleasant as possible throughout the entire process,' and 'did a wonderful job of making me comfortable from day one to the end.'

The third significant comfort factor for 42.9 percent of jurors was the credentials of the debriefers. Jurors indicated that prior experience in working with various forms of post-traumatic stress gave debriefers credibility in understanding and validating feelings. Secondly, as debriefing skills increased, knowledge gained from other jury panels added to the ability to verify and validate juror experiences. This demonstrates the need for debriefers to be well informed and to possess good people skills.

Alternative jurors were included in debriefings. Hafemeister reported that 'Juror alternates also experiences stress in the course of their duties, although it is likely to be somewhat different from that experienced by jurors.'12 In the YCJS, several alternates reported that not being involved in the deliberation process was stressful. They stated that they 'didn’t get to finish their job' but had the same reactions to the trial, as did the co-jurors. 'I know I served a purpose but I didn’t have an opportunity to go through deliberations…closure was difficult.' Another reported that 'I was the 13th juror and it as rather stressful when the trial was over and I was excused…After sitting through the entire trial I would have liked to make my observations and listen to others.'

Timing of the debriefing is of some question. Some writers suggest an immediate response, retaining the jury at the end of the trial so that jury issues or concerns are immediately addressed and all jurors can be included in debriefing. Bienen believes that 'the advantage of offering the counseling to the group of jurors as a whole immediately after the trial is that jurors who may be minimizing or dismissing the experience can be incorporated. The counseling can be preventative, as well as curative.'13

Our experiences with one debriefing in Yamhill County held immediately after sentencing in a death penalty case lead to a different conclusion. One juror from that debriefing wrote, 'Debriefing was not at all helpful. It was too soon. The shock and feelings related to a stressful or traumatic event often do not surface for at least a few days.' In this instance, the debriefing was of little value, as jurors needed to stabilize and to reconnect with family prior to a debriefing.

Other debriefings in Yamhill County were scheduled five to seven days after the completion of the trial or death penalty phase. When possible, jurors were provided with the date, time and place of the debriefing prior to leaving the courthouse. If not, they were notified by mail the following day. Hafemeister states that 'by asking jurors to reconvene the next day, they are given an opportunity to rest and collect their thoughts, and they do not feel that their participation is an imposition upon them.'14 Jurors responding to the YCJS indicated that returning at a later date proved to be beneficial.

Aside from debriefing, the majority of respondents indicated that the most helpful aspects in taking care of themselves following the jury experience was talking with family, friends, a member of the faith community or other jurors.

Prayer was the second highest rated activity (47.1 percent) and relying on religious faith was rated third (33.3 percent). Of the 51 jurors answering this question, 47.1 percent relied on prayer for help during the trial; 33.3 percent said they relied on faith to get them through the trial; and 15.7 percent relied on members of the faith community to assist them, specifically naming their pastor as the person they talked to. The reliance on prayer and religious faith is important to note for its implications to the faith community as a source for follow up to jurors who continue to be affected after the trial and debriefing. If members of the ministry understand the dynamics of jury service, they can provide assistance to those affected by it. They are in a unique situation to respond to jurors who are conflicted by various emotions regarding the trial and the defendant. While the YCJS did not question what types of conflicts caused them to rely on faith, other responses indicated that the need for strength and endurance, the exposure to heinous crimes, and the inability to talk to others, caused people to rely on their faith as a coping strategy.

Often a judge can discern juror stress and can determine that debriefing will be a useful and important part of restoring the jury’s psychological balance. 'Once judges order post-verdict counseling, they are likely to ask for it again. It will be easy for the judges to do so because they will have identified a person or team within their jurisdiction capable of providing such debriefing. When judges order a debriefing session with local personnel for all jurors immediately after trial, the expenditures are minimal and can be easily absorbed into ordinary trial costs. It is useful to do the debriefing when jurors are still considering themselves as a group and when the disturbing evidence is fresh in their minds.'15

Yamhill County jurors recommend that a brief meeting between jurors and court staff take place immediately after jurors are dismissed. This would provide an opportunity to answer any legal questions jurors have for the judge. Jurors also recommend having printed information available at that time to help those not attending a later jury debriefing, or for those developing a delayed reaction to the stress of jury duty. These jurors encouraged court staff to provide the following information to jurors prior to leaving the courthouse at the end of trial service:

1. Advise jurors that they are not required to speak to members of the media. Give permission to say 'no comment' to the media. Many jurors report that they thought they were obligated to talk to the press — and feared doing so.

2. Provide jurors with an avenue for leaving the courthouse without being seen by the press, the defendant and/or his family, or the victim’s family. Provide law enforcement escorts to take jurors to their cars, when necessary.

3. Advise jurors they can attend sentencing if they wish. Give directions for obtaining information about the sentencing date and time.

A Supreme Court Committee in Arizona recommends further suggestions for the courts:

1. Become proactive in detecting and treating juror stress;

2. Assist jurors in coping w/ fears of contact or retaliation;

3. Solicit jurors’ reactions to their courthouse experience; and

4. Advise jurors concerning post-verdict conversations with judge, attorneys and media.16

After three years of working with jurors, our recommendations include:

1. Development of informational stress management and awareness materials for distribution to jurors upon completion of trial service;

2. Automatic opportunities for jurors to access counseling services through employee assistance programs through the county system in which they serve;

3. Automatic provision of debriefing service for jurors serving on difficult and/or high profile cases;

4. The development of a jury debriefing service within the state court system;

5. Exploration of the need to provide debriefing services to grand jurors; and

6. Further research into the psychological impact of jury service.

Based on feedback from the survey and individual debriefings, we believe that the courts have an obligation to offer assistance to jurors, and to provide debriefing to those who request it.

Roi Holt is is currently working as a consultant and private contractor, including development of the State Victim’s Assistance Academy. She has over 25 years of experience as a crime victim’s advocate and recently retired from the Crime Victim’s Assistance Program of the Department of Justice. Janvier Slick is a licensed clinical social worker, who for 10 years provided treatment to victims of sexual abuse. She is now the Child Protective Services Program coordinator at the Department of Human Resources. Amy Rayborn graduated from Willamette University in 2001 and was a student intern in the development of the project and article. Information that may be reproduced as brochure for jurors may be obtained free of charge from the authors. For a copy, or for further assistance, contact jurydebriefinginc@yahoo.com.


1. This survey corroborated the findings of others working in the field, such as Feldmen and Bell, infra, who debriefed jurors after the Dahlmer trial, and researchers Hafemeister and Ventis, whose works indicate various reasons that jury experience can be stress inducing.

2. Bienen, L. B. (1992). Helping Jurors Out: Post-Verdict Debriefing for Jurors in Emotionally Disturbing Trials, 68 Indiana Law Journal 1333.

3. Murphy, T. R., Loveland, G. K, & Munsterman, G. T. (1992) Managing Notorious Cases, National Center for State Courts, page 80.

4. Dabbs, M. O. (1992) Remarks to Judges Especially in Conclusion, 16 Law and Psychology Review 215.

5. Bell, R. A. & Feldmann, T. B., Managing Stress in the Jury Box, Newsday, Jan. 22, 1992, at 74.

6. Hafemeister, T. L. & Ventis, W. L. (1994) Juror Stress: Sources and Implications, Trial, October 1994, page 68, Association of Trial Lawyers of America 1994.

7. Hafemeister, T. L. & Ventis, W. L., supra at 72.

8. Murphy, T. R., Loveland, G. K, & Munsterman, G. T. (1992) Managing Notorious Cases. National Center for State Courts, pg. 79.

9. Feldman, T. B. & Bell, R. A. (1993) Juror Stress: Identification and Intervention. The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Vol. 21, No. 4, p. 414.

10. Bienen at 1342.

11. Hafemeister, T. L. & Ventis, W. L. (1992) Juror Stress: What Burden Have We Placed on Our Juries? State Court Journal, Vol. 16, p. 36.

12. Hafemeister, T. L. (1993) Juror Stress, Violence and Victims, Vol. 8, No. 2, Springer Publishing Company, p. 184.

13. Bienen at 1333-34.

14. Hafemeister, T. L. (1993) Juror Stress, Violence and Victims, Vol. 8, No. 2, Springer Publishing Company, p. 183.

15. Bienen at 1354.

16. Jurors: The Power of 12, Arizona Supreme Court, 1999.

© 2003 Roi Holt, Janvier Slick & Amy Rayborn

return to top
return to Table of Contents