Jurors in Dennis Oland murder trial at risk for PTSD, expert says
Graphic evidence, responsibility and secrecy could have lingering psychological effects, says Patrick Baillie
Jurors in Dennis Oland's second-degree murder trial could be dealing with the psychological effects of the experience for months, or even years to come, according to an expert.
Symptoms can include nightmares, anxiety, and impairment in cognition, such as lapses in memory or concentration.
Baillie contends there should be more support for jurors, who play a crucial role in the justice system, and that the federal law, which prohibits them from discussing the content of their deliberations with anyone, including mental health professionals, needs to be amended.
Oland, 46, is accused of killing his father, prominent businessman Richard Oland, more than four years ago.
You don't get to turn away and say, 'I don't want to look at it.'- Patrick Baillie , forensic psychologist
Earlier this week, the jury saw graphic crime scene photos of the victim's bludgeoned body, which was found lying face down in a large pool of blood in his blood-spattered Saint John office on July 7, 2011.
He suffered 40 sharp and blunt force injuries to his head and neck, and six defensive wounds to his hands, the courtroom heard.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice John Walsh, who has been brought in from Miramichi to hear the high-profile case, had warned the nine men and seven women of the jury that the images would be upsetting and urged them to "steel" themselves for the "shock."
"This is real life," which isn't the same as watching a violent or graphic TV show, stressed Baillie.
"You don't get to turn away and say, 'I don't want to look at it.' You don't get to metaphorically change the channel. You're being asked to view this because it's believed to be important evidence in the case," he said.
"You're being asked to actually think about, and spend time with, that material" day after day.
And the longer the exposure, the worse the potential impact can be, Baillie said.
The Oland trial is scheduled to take about 65 days, until Dec.18, making it one of the longest — if not the longest — criminal trials in New Brunswick history.
Former juror felt 'numb' for months
Even professionals, who are used to dealing with distressing material and often have a reduced sensitivity, sometimes find it takes a toll.
Retired Ontario Superior Court justice Patrick LeSage, who was the presiding judge at Paul Bernardo's murder trial in 1995, for example, has spoken publicly about the effect the graphic evidence presented in court had on him, including waking up at night in the months and years afterward.
How you feel can sometimes mislead, so you have a tendency to want to shut off your feelings.- Bryan Burt, former juror
LeSage was so traumatized by the videos of rape and torture he saw that he wasn't "physically and mentally able" to conduct Bernardo's dangerous offender hearing, he told the Globe and Mail in 2002.
Bryan Burt, a 52-year-old construction contractor, who has served as a juror for two cases in Calgary, including an attempted murder trial, where the victim was so badly beaten with a blunt instrument that he was "deformed from his injuries," describes the experience as being "surreal."
"How you feel can sometimes mislead, so you have a tendency to want to shut off your feelings and just have an unbiased look at the evidence, and when you see traumatic stuff as well, you kind of push that off to the side and you do your job as a juror," said Burt.
He recalls feeling "numb" for months afterward and had actually blocked out memories of the seeing the graphic evidence. "That's probably how I coped with it," he said. "It's kind of self-preservation."
Baillie says just being exposed to evidence related to a death, or serious bodily harm, can produce PTSD in jurors, even though they weren't personally involved in the event.
The decision among the 12 strangers who are thrown together must also be unanimous, despite whatever personality conflicts may arise during the high-stakes deliberations, said Baillie.
Burt says he was fortunate because everyone "meshed" on the two juries he sat on. Still, he says he had a lot of sleepless nights, given the heavy burden.
"It's a decision that's very tough to make — even when you know you've made the right decision, based on the evidence," he said.
"Either way is traumatic — whether it's guilty or innocent — because people's lives have been affected," not only that of the defendant, but also the families involved.
"It's a huge weight to place on people."
Can be overwhelming
Nicole O'Byrne, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick, agrees. She says some of her students, who have served as jurors, have told her it can be"a monumental responsibility."
Once in a while, it strikes the juror that actually there's a really big question here … because someone has lost their life.- Nicole O'Byrne , associate law professor
"Things get very technical, there's a lot of evidence being put forward, lots of documentation. It can be very slow, it can be very dry in how the case is presented. And once in a while, it strikes the juror that actually there's a really big question here … because someone has lost their life," said O'Byrne.
"But someone else might be facing 10, 25 years in prison and you really have an obligation to weigh the evidence properly, or as well as you can, because wrongful convictions, they've been a serious problem in this country's history," she said.
"We have all sorts of examples where people have spent 10, 15, 20 years in prison because of a wrong determination at the trial level. So it's a big responsibility for people and I think it becomes overwhelming to some jurors."
Lack of support
To make matters worse, unlike American jurors, Canadian jurors are prohibited by law from discussing information related to jury proceedings that were not made public in court.
As a result, they are cut off from their usual support systems of family, friends, or co-workers.
Burt, who has been married about 30 years and often turns to his wife if something is bothering him, says the isolation was particularly challenging. "You have to process it yourself," he said.
Jurors can't even discuss the trial details with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or any other health care worker, said Baillie.
'Government needs to step up'
"I don't think we do near enough to support the people who are willing to take the step of serving on a jury," he said. "I think that the government needs to step up."
"I would hope there would be more supports in place and maybe some changes to the legislation in terms of allowing people to talk to a designated mental health professional about the kinds of things they're dealing with.
"We need to do more to help out jurors and I think that would help the public to be a little more enthusiastic about showing up when the letter comes in the mail saying you've been called" for jury duty.
Burt agrees allowing jurors to talk to a court-appointed psychologist about what they saw and heard would go a long way to improving the experience.
He'd also like to see some kind of orientation offered to jurors at the beginning of a trial so they know how the process works and what's expected of them.
The federal Department of Justice "can't speculate regarding potential legislative changes," spokesman Ian McLeod told CBC News.
"Section 649 of the Criminal Code is designed to protect the integrity of the jury process. It doesn't preclude former jurors from discussing their feelings with a counsellor, but only from violating confidentiality by disclosing specific information relating to jury proceedings that was not made public in court," he said.