Jurors troubled by gruesome evidence may now be eligible for counseling

Sharon Cave Sedwick couldn't even look at the photos of her daughter's body during the 2007 trial of Colton Pitonyak, who was accused of stabbing the 21-year-old Austin woman 38 times and dismembering and decapitating her.

Instead, Sedwick watched the 14 jurors -- some as young as her daughter -- who wept as they viewed the gory photos. Their faces reflected sleepless nights, she said.

"We asked those 14 people to take that burden on," she said. "I felt like jurors were getting a bad shake."

Sedwick shared her concerns with Juan Garcia, her former state representative in Corpus Christi. Garcia, now assistant secretary of the Navy, co-sponsored a 2007 law allowing counties to offer counseling to jurors who say they are traumatized by graphic evidence in murder, child sexual assault and other trials.

The law was amended last year to include other crimes, including physical abuse of children. However, few counties have set up juror counseling programs because the state provided no funding.

But now Tarrant County is taking part and recently got its first request for counseling -- from a member of the jury that sentenced Marine veteran Eric Acevedo in April to life without parole for the 2008 stabbing death of his girlfriend, Mollieann Worden.

Acevedo's two-week capital murder trial included a dramatic 911 tape of Worden's screams as Acevedo stabbed her 11 times. Jurors were also shown numerous gruesome photos of Worden's body.

County victim-assistance director Blanca Burciaga became juror-assistance director and arranged for the juror -- who was not identified -- to get counseling at The Women's Center of Tarrant County.

Burciaga said she wasn't surprised that a juror from the Acevedo trial sought counseling.

"In my eight years here, that was one of the most savage murders I've ever dealt with," she said.

A stressful role

Tarrant County's felony judges will refer jurors for counseling on a case-by-case basis. The jury services and victim-assistance departments are picking up the cost, 396th District Judge George Gallagher said.

"The judges feel good to have the mechanics in place if we need it," Gallagher said. He said he had not presided over a trial that he believed merited juror counseling, but he understands why a juror in the Acevedo trial did.

In other Texas counties that offer counseling, few jurors have requested it, despite general acknowledgement that jury duty can take an emotional toll.

About 70 percent of jurors report some stress in any type of jury trial, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies for the National Center for State Courts.

Mental health and legal experts say the stress is worse for jurors who must view graphic photos and hear heart-wrenching testimony. Most jurors recover quickly, the experts say. But some have trouble erasing the images without help.

The toll is less on attorneys and judges who regularly view crime scene and autopsy photos, said Cynthia Cohen, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants. They become somewhat immune to even the most horrific evidence and can walk away, said Cohen, a psychologist who specializes in jury research.

"It's important that if there are any ramifications [for jurors] from that, the court needs to be ready with counseling," she said.

Brochures on hand

Some counties are finding ways to operate on limited funds.

Travis County, where Pitonyak was sentenced to 55 years for Jennifer Cave's murder, was among the first to set up a counseling program, using its own victim-assistant employees to counsel jurors who requested it.

Travis provides brochures for judges to distribute to jurors in the most disturbing trials. Victim/witness coordinator Ellen Halbert then assigns her staff members with master's degrees in social work to counsel jurors.

Even though few jurors have sought counseling, she said the pamphlets, which list possible stress symptoms, reassure jurors that their feelings are normal.

In Dallas County, victim-assistance coordinator Chris Jenkins was researching programs when a juror on a 2008 murder trial went to state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, for help.

That inquiry persuaded county commissioners to pay for the program, Jenkins said. That enabled her to distribute juror brochures as directed by judges and prosecutors.

Jenkins contracted with a private agency to counsel jurors one-on-one or as a group. The group debriefing is similar to a 12-year-old program in Washington state.

The Dallas County agency obtained a grant to pay for the program, she said.

Judges have distributed brochures to jurors in two trials, but none, including the juror whose questions helped implement the program, have requested counseling, Jenkins said.

But she agrees that the brochures themselves may help jurors, who have six months after a trial to request counseling.

"They may not experience these things right away," she said.

In Nueces County, officials sought Sedwick's help to establish a program shortly after a trial in which jurors watched videotapes of children being raped and sodomized.

"Just seeing those children raped and sodomized every day took its toll," said Sedwick, who lives in Nueces County.


Carl Edwards, a Baylor University professor of law and psychology, said it's not unusual for counties to delay setting up counseling programs until they experience a noticeable need.

"This is not necessarily inappropriate, since unwarranted use of this service could do more harm than good," he said.

Edwards, who has written extensively about trauma and disaster mental health, said encouraging jurors to seek counseling could override their natural abilities to cope with life experiences, including jury duty.

"Research has shown that overwhelming people with trauma services can create a sense of victimhood and encourage traumatic reactions where they otherwise would not exist," he said.

One Tarrant County juror agrees.

"I think it's a waste of taxpayer money," said Jennifer Aufricht, a juror in a November trial of Dustin Nall, accused of stabbing a 68-year-old woman to death on her front porch. The trial ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn't reach a verdict.

"I'd be interested to see the statistics of the counties that implement it," she said. "Of the eligible jurors, what percent take it? What percent of the counseling is related to the trauma of the trial as opposed to just needing counseling?"

Aufricht said the only trauma she experienced was from the frustrating interaction among jury members.

"But I don't think anybody was traumatized by what we viewed and heard," she said. "I certainly wasn't. With what we see in movies and on TV, to think that trials causing trauma point to the need for counseling is preposterous."

But Cynthia Greise Gladden, a juror in the 1991 capital murder trial of a man who dismembered a woman who rejected his sexual advances, said every juror reacts differently to exposure to details of horrific crimes.

Gladden was a 24-year-old single mother when she participated in the decision to sentence Lawrence Barfield to life in prison for the murder of Veronica Stone. She said she still thinks about that trial.

"With all the movies we see, people are desensitized, but back then it was pretty disturbing," she said. "The hardest thing was not just the pictures but the fact he cut her head off, posed her and had sex with her after she was dead."

Then prosecutor Robert Mayfield read those details from a manuscript written by Barfield.

"I didn't have actual nightmares," Gladden said. "But I think it would have been beneficial just to talk to someone about it."

Since then, Gladden said, she has read about other gruesome murders including one in which a man used a chainsaw to cut off his wife's arms in front of their children and then cut off her head.

"I'd hate to be on jury like that," she said. "Those jurors definitely need something."

Not widely offered

Sue Covey of King County, Wash., leads what is believed to be the oldest juror counseling program in the nation. The program, started in 1998, is set up to support jurors without suggesting that they were traumatized.

King County judges hand out brochures that explain the voluntary program, Covey said. In most cases, most jurors agree to meet as a group after the trial to share their experiences, with Covey's guidance.

Covey counsels jurors individually only when most reject the group debriefing.

"I don't think debriefing is as helpful if not in a group," she said. "That's the whole point -- to hear what others go through, to realize you're not alone."

State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said he sponsored the 2009 law to assist jurors who might be exposed to gruesome evidence not covered by the 2007 law, such as Bexar County jurors in a string of child abuse cases.

Castro said the state is not likely to make the program mandatory or to provide funding any time soon.

"Because counties have different local situations, it's likely to remain a local option," he said. "Down the road, legislators may reassess whether we need to make it more commonplace."

Even if counseling is not widespread in Texas, Cornell University law professor Valerie Hans commended the state for offering it. Texas is among a handful of states to do so.

"Certainly stress is part of the jury experience," said Hans, who writes about juries. "On occasion, it's extremely intense. I applaud the Texas Legislature. I think this law is a step in the right direction."

MARTHA DELLER, 817-390-7857