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Second Opinion

Everyday Heroes, Courting Stress

By Abigail Trafford
Monday, December 1, 2003; Page HE01

We ask many ordinary men and women to do their duty and serve their country. They put their work lives and their family lives on hold. No one really knows what they are going through, because they can't talk about it. They witness the havoc that violence wreaks, and encounter the extremes of evil and innocence. They are under pressure to get the job done as soon as possible. When they return home, they bring back jarring mementos.

These men and women are not soldiers in Iraq. They are not serving in Afghanistan.

They serve on jury duty in the United States.

The seven women and five men in the Virginia Beach courthouse who sentenced John Allen Muhammad to death last week are among the newest veterans of another kind of front in the defense of democracy. They uprooted their lives for six weeks of involuntary service in the jury box. They relived the rampage of killings that terrorized the Washington area in the fall of 2002, staring at the face of the defendant in the courtroom and at the faces of victims in gory photographs. They agonized over the death penalty, framing their decision in terms of homeland security. After the trial, jurors spoke of their fears that Muhammad would strike again if his life were spared. As jury foreman Jerry Haggerty, a retired Navy pilot, told The Post: "I could not live with myself if somebody else got hurt and I'd had the chance to stop it."

This is a heavy burden to bear in the line of duty. Death penalty cases pose significant stress on jurors. "They carry it home. They carry it inside -- they carry it for days, months, sometimes years," says Thomas L. Hafemeister of the University of Virginia Law School.

To be sure, jurors are not physically threatened the way soldiers are in war. Their tour of duty is much shorter. But they may be emotionally threatened, especially if they sit on death penalty cases and are exposed to graphic details of violence. Meanwhile, their lives are interrupted. They must rely on co-workers to cover for them and make other arrangements to care for children or elderly relatives.

And after it's all over, there are no parades or Purple Hearts. For their hard work, jurors serve for virtually no pay and receive no veterans' benefits.

Yet the role of jurors is pivotal to the country's implementation of justice. Trial by jury is a mainstay of the legal system. The task is huge. "We're throwing a group of strangers together, asking them to get along, to share this experience and come to an agreement," says Hafemeister. "We want laypersons to make these decisions."

But there's no formal thank-you note from the general public to recognize the sacrifices that jurors make.

Instead, jury duty is the butt of jokes. For decades, people have laughed at David Letterman's Top 10 Ways to Get Out of Jury Duty ("Ask if you get to execute criminals personally . . . if there will be opportunities to examine bloody undershirts"). The Internet is filled with humorous advice ("Refer to all judges as communists and mental perverts").

When the summons to jury duty arrives in the mail, do you go down to the courthouse with a sense of dread and pray that you will not be assigned to a trial? Now that the country has gone to all-volunteer armed forces, jury duty remains the one arena where citizens can get drafted for government service.(More humorous advice on the Internet for beating the jury draft: "Flee to Canada.")

Jury duty needs an upgrade in respect. People can argue with a jury's decision -- but not with the stress that jurors endure to make a decision, or the even greater stress on jurors when they are locked in conflict and can't reach a consensus. It's the price jurors pay to protect the rule of law for the rest of us.

Earlier this year, Lynda Walcker of Newport, Ore., was the foreman of a jury that gave a death sentence to a man who murdered his wife and children. She knows what goes into reaching a death penalty decision. "It takes integrity," she says. "We were dealing with people's consciences."

There are ways to reduce stress on jurors. Jurors may stay in contact and provide mutual support, especially if the people around them have no understanding of what they went through. In the aftermath of some high-profile trials, jurors are offered a debriefing with a mental health professional.

But a first step is to find a public way to say thank you to jurors. As Hafemeister points out: "If they can walk away with the sense that what they did is appreciated, it makes a big difference."

Abigail Trafford can be reached at trafforda@washpost.com.

Editor's note: This article by Abigail Trafford, was first acquired in December 2003.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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