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Monday, February 25, 2008

Jury duty: 'An awesome, awesome responsibility'

By Mike Heine/The Week

Sitting on a jury panel with another human's future hinging on one decision you make is one of the most stressful things to put on a person, experts say.

"It is an awesome, awesome responsibility to have in your hands," said Dr. Don Judges, a law professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Arkansas. "Jurors don't ask to have the fate of another human being in their hands, especially in a murder trial when the sentence is death or life (in prison) without parole. It's an enormous responsibility. Your actions and decisions have profound consequences on the life of another human being."

Evidence can be disturbing, gruesome, emotional or scary.

"This is the kind of stuff on television shows, but there it is in real life," Judges said.

Adding to the stress is the task of not talking about it until deliberations can begin, Judges said.

"When you're having a stressful situation, what's the first thing you want to do? You talk about it, especially when someone is sharing it with you," Judges said. "That's denied to the jurors... the usual mechanisms of coping."

Long jury trials can have effects on the personal life, too. Jurors are away from their normal routines, their work, and they're asked to keep everything they did that day a secret from their friends or spouses, said Dr. David Thompson, a clinical and forensic Psychologist and deputy director of the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department.

"What about the people left picking up the slack," he said. "You put (jurors) in a room for eight to 12 hours a day, who's taking care of the home front? Who's watching the house? Who's watching the kids? Who's shoveling the walk? That's tremendous. It's the jurors' families that really can suffer.

"It's not unusual in cases like this, with long trials, that the tension gets high at home and you see domestic squabbles."

The tensions inside the jury room were only moderate when deliberations started for the Mark Jensen murder case, jury foreman Matthew Smith of Darien said.

At the start of deliberations, five jurors thought he was guilty, two thought innocent and five were undecided, Smith said. It took 32 hours to reach a guilty verdict.

The jury coped by being methodical in going through every piece of evidence they thought had importance.

The jurors also felt they had a civic responsibility, Smith said.

That kind of attitude, while certainly not wrong, is often a response to dealing with a difficult moral position, Judges said.

"We're socialized not to hurt anybody," Judges said. "If we're asked to violate that norm and inflict harm on others, what psychology tells us is people will find a way to adapt to it. They try and distance themselves from the harm.

"That's a psychological move to diffuse or distance yourself from the responsibility of you having to decide something that's harmful to someone else."

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