Big Trials Change Juror Lives
DENVER — For more than 200 years, jurors have functioned as the cornerstone of the American judicial system. Indeed, some say jurors - not judges or lawyers - are the true heroes of the judiciary. They fulfill the demanding duty of judging their peers.
But while trial by jury has stood as an inviolable right of American citizens since 1765, our forefathers surely never envisioned year-long trials, sequestered juries, or gavel-to-gavel TV coverage followed closely by millions of citizens.
All this has put unprecedented pressure on members of juries as recent high-profile cases have shown. From the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward to the case against Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols, jurors have found themselves second-guessed, harassed, and even threatened because they came to an unpopular decision.
Now, as jurors in the trial of Unabomb suspect Theodore Kaczynski wait to hear if mounting delays will force selection of a new jury, they face the prospect that their lives may be forever changed - for better or for worse - by serving in a case that has captivated America's attention.
For Nichols juror Niki Deutchman, the changes have been overwhelming. The jury forewoman has not only had to deal with verbal attacks against her jury's widely criticized decision to not give the death penalty, but she has also been threatened with physical violence. After the deadlocked jury was dismissed, leaving the sentencing in the hands of US District Court Judge Richard Matsch, Ms. Deutchman received a series of bomb threats at her home from an anonymous caller.
US Marshals immediately advised the Denver nurse to cease contact with the media for her own protection. "If I can avoid being on a jury again, I probably will," Deutchman says. "It's been extremely difficult."
Even in the best of circumstances, jury duty in criminal as well as civil cases is apt to be stressful and demanding, says Robert Hirschhorn, a Lewisville, Texas, jury consultant and trial attorney. "Then you add another layer on top of that with a high-profile case," he says. "The jurors know that the community, the country - even the world - will be watching them, and grading their paper."
It was this intense attention that surprised many jurors in the Louise Woodward trial. Critics in the streets held up giant IQ tests, mocking jurors' intelligence, and one juror, who spoke only if she could remain anonymous, says that she received phone calls from people as far away as Michigan telling her how wrong she was. One caller even called her a murderer.
But not all jurors have such negative experiences - especially when their decisions are more in tune with public sentiment. "I got a real positive feeling from doing a good job and living up to the oath I took as a juror," says Fred Clarke, who served in the trial of Mr. Nichols's codefendant, Timothy Mc-Veigh. And as far as changes, "I talk to a lot more reporters and media types now," the Parker, Colo., resident says. "Before this happened, I'd never talked to any."
After the trial
Still, some jurors find that it takes months to regain their equilibrium after highly emotional and contentious trials like that of Mr. McVeigh or O.J. Simpson.
"In high-impact cases where there is a lot of violence - such as murder and rape - it is really a distressing experience to jurors, no matter what the outcome," says Cathlin Donnell, a former US attorney in Denver, who is now involved in jury research and jury reform.
Indeed, more than six months after the McVeigh verdict, juror Douglas Carr of Fort Collins, Colo., says the experience of serving on the jury remains prominent in his life. "I think about it every day. It's a part of my life now."
And every day he lives with the knowledge that he and fellow jurors imposed a death sentence. "It's going to be a sad day in my life when he's executed, but I have no regrets."
Certainty goes a long way toward helping jurors move on, says Ms. Donnell, but when public opinion is against the jurors' verdict, letting go can be tough.
The Woodward juror says she has "great confidence" in the jury's verdict that Ms. Woodward was guilty of murdering an infant in her care - even though it was unpopular and the judge overturned it.
Now, the Woodward jurors seek solace in one another's company. They gathered on a recent night for what was billed as a reunion cocktail party - but what most understood to be a support-group session.
There, they talked about their continuing disagreement with the overturned verdict - and of their being hounded by the press after the trial. One man told of trespassing through a neighbor's yard to escape the media. Most jurors had to temporarily leave their homes and stay with relatives.
The cusp of reform
Such pressures are leading Donnell to push for jury reform in Colorado. "We ask a great deal of jurors, and they don't volunteer for the job. It's a huge responsibility," she says.
Attempts at anonymous juries are invariably foiled by the media, which manage to identify at least some jurors. Jury protection needs to become a higher priority, Donnell says. Among the changes she supports are:
* Avoiding the use of sequestered juries, especially during long trials.
* Increasing jurors' rights in the courtroom (such as letting them ask questions).
* Allowing jurors to take notes.
* Letting jurors discuss the case among themselves as it unfolds.
"Right now, it's a real pressure cooker for jurors," says Donnell. "It becomes a very emotional environment, because we give them so much power, but they don't have the same right as judges and lawyers."
But once the temporary stress of jury duty subsides, jurors often view the experience positively. "In hundreds and hundreds of post-jury interviews, people say that other than getting married and having children, the decision they made on the jury was the most important they'd ever made," says Mr. Hirschhorn.
* Staff writer Abraham T. McLaughlin contributed to this report from Boston.