Moments after the jurors handed down their verdict in the gruesome Jeffrey Dahmer case in Milwaukee on Feb. 15, they were invited back into the deliberation room. This time, it was not to discuss legal points of the case. Instead, they were offered counseling by mental health professionals. All 12, plus two alternates, accepted. For the next couple of hours, in a closed-door session, they talked of their reactions to being exposed through graphic testimony to the world of a man who murdered at least 15 young men and boys, and then had sex with their corpses and mutilated them.

Called everything from jury debriefing to group counseling, this procedure is new to the court system but it appears to be taking hold. Small but growing numbers of judges nationwide are offering jurors professionally led group sessions designed to help minimize the stress of particularly ugly criminal trials.

"We wanted people to have the chance to decompress, to go through all the emotional baggage associated with decompressing -- anger, tears, fears," said psychiatrist Len Sperry, a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who assisted in the Dahmer jury debriefing.

In this case, the jurors had been asked to decide if the 31-year-old Milwaukee man was sane. Dahmer pleaded guilty, and after weeks of testimony, the jury found him sane. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Laurence C. Gram sentenced him to 15 consecutive life terms in prison.

The emotional release from such an experience as the Dahmer trial can be facilitated by a group discussion in which jurors learn about stress and find ways to express their reactions to the trial. "It serves as a rite of passage for people to get some closure," Sperry said. "They were very willing and very engaged in the process."Effect of Traumatic Events

Jury debriefing is generally modeled after a process called trauma or crisis debriefing, which is used to help people affected by natural disasters or traumatic events such as fires, earthquakes, automobile accidents, plane crashes and violent crimes. The technique also is routinely employed with rescue, fire, police and medical personnel who confront devastating crises on the job.

Specialists agree that traumatic experiences can trigger a range of stress-related symptoms, including insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, irritability and depression. If left unchecked, symptoms can worsen. But, studies show, "when people talk about traumatic events in a carefully controlled situation, it lowers the stress immediately," said psychologist Jeffery T. Mitchell, professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Debriefing is an attempt to intervene before acute stress disorders or disease develops. "Our absolute main goal is preventative," said Mitchell, who is also president of the American Critical Stress Foundation, an organization of trauma debriefers.

"What we're trying to do is head off illness," said Roger Bell, professor of psychiatry at Kentucky's University of Louisville and leader of the Dahmer debriefing. He points out that the legal process of a trial exacerbates the stress on the jurors. They often are exposed to grotesque details through photographs, videos, tape recordings and emotional testimony so that the crime is essentially recreated in the courtroom. Then the jurors are instructed not to discuss the experience until the trial is over. "We expose them to a wide variety of issues that may be grisly in nature," he said, "and then tell them not to talk about it."

Trauma debriefings tend to follow a set format of a single meeting in which the jurors are encouraged to talk about their reactions. Participation in sessions is voluntary. They are held as quickly after the event as possible and last for about two hours. Usually they are led by professional debriefers whose backgrounds range from law enforcement to medicine. Some debriefers donate their time, some charge per session, and others do it as part of their regular employment if they are county social workers and victim's assistance counselors, for example. All three types of debriefers have worked with juries. When payment was necessary, courts have provided the fees.

In the debriefing discussion, participants are taught to recognize symptoms of stress. They are reassured that if they have problems, it is a normal response to the stress of the trial. They are also given a one-by-one opportunity to talk about their experiences and to unwind from the trial. "What we're saying," said Bell, "is 'Hey, don't start stuffing those feelings, don't start thinking you're crazy, these are normal reactions.' "

An important part of trauma debriefing is that speaking out is voluntary. "The fallacy is that everybody has to talk in a debriefing," said Mitchell. "The reality is that people can get lots of information and may actually find some relief by listening to others." If someone doesn't find relief and acute stress symptoms persist, individual counseling is recommended, with referrals often made by the debriefer.

Gram, judge of the Dahmer trial, said that he didn't think the courtroom proceedings were unusually stressful because the attorneys had agreed beforehand not to use disturbingly graphic evidence. But when picking the jury, he warned that the testimony would be rough. What's more, the high-profile nature of the trial, including relentless media attention, the three weeks of sequestering and the sheer number of murders involved, had a big impact on the jurors.

"It was a tough case," he said. "They really struggled . . . they were separated from their families for three weeks; that was the meaningful stress."

After being besieged by "all sorts of offers" of psychological assistance, said Gram, he agreed to work with Bell's jury debriefing team only after they offered to train local professionals, such as Sperry, in the process. "I thought there was a value to the community," he said. Gram was the first judge in Wisconsin to use the process in his courtroom. Venting Frustration

Bell and psychiatrist Theodore B. Feldmann, also a professor at the University of Louisville, have been researching jury debriefing since 1989, when they first used the process in Carrollton, Ky., after the manslaughter trial of an intoxicated driver who ran his pickup truck into a church bus, killing 27 people, mostly adolescents. He was convicted of 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Presiding Judge Charles Satterwhite of the 15th Judicial Circuit called Bell after reading a law journal article about crisis debriefing, to see if it would be appropriate for jurors.

"I knew by the nature of the trial that it was going to be traumatic for everyone involved," said Satterwhite, explaining that photographs and videos of maimed bodies at the accident scene would be used at the trial. "Especially the jurors. I was very sensitive about their feelings."

Satterwhite and some court staff attended the debriefing. "It was an emotional time, but it was a rewarding time," he said, "because it let them vent frustration."

In 1991, Bell and Feldmann conducted a follow-up debriefing with the same jury. In the same year, they debriefed their second jury following the murder trial in Louisville of a teacher found guilty of shooting and beheading his wife, burying her head in the back yard and burning her body. This debriefing also was prompted by the presiding judge. Two weeks ago, the team debriefed another jury in Louisville, following the murder trial of a man found guilty of killing his 5-week-old son by crushing the infant's skull.

In all sessions, said Bell, jurors reported experiencing a variety of stress symptoms that included flashbacks, sleep disturbances, problems in personal relations and extreme moodiness. One juror in the first Louisville trial, said Bell, was plagued by flashbacks of "that shocking evidence {shown in a video at the trial} of somebody reaching down in a garbage sack and grabbing a decapitated head by the hair. They {the jurors} couldn't understand how one human being could do that to another human being."

In 1991, a follow-up debriefing was held with the Carrollton jury, 18 months after the first session. One of the main purposes of the follow-up, said Bell, was to gauge the effectiveness of the first debriefing. At the follow-up, he said, most jurors reported that stress symptoms had continued for several weeks after the trial, and some reported experiencing difficulty for months. There was consensus among the jurors, said Bell, that the initial debriefing had helped prepare them for the stress. They learned that their reactions were normal.

Even at the second debriefing, he said, some jurors reported that they still had unpleasant flashbacks of various aspects of the bus accident and the trial. But, said Bell, "although a re-experiencing of the event was reported frequently by all of the jurors, none had sought psychiatric treatment and the group in general seemed to be functioning well."

In the past, courts have largely overlooked just how traumatic some trials are for jurors. "There's a conspicuous lack of resources to deal with it," said King County (Seattle) Superior Court Judge Jim Bates. In 1991, Bates used jury debriefing following the double homicide murder trial of a man convicted of killing his girlfriend and another of her lovers with hundreds of knife cuts.

Learning that some jurors were having emotional problems several days after the trial, Bates located a video called "Jurors Are Victims, Too" in the court library and contacted its producers, Washington Victim's Services. The organization's directors had never debriefed a jury, but they were all experienced trauma counselors and voluntarily conducted a session with the jurors, the judge and the entire court staff. "Judges are viewed as hardened," Bates said. "We're also human beings. I'm not embarrassed to talk about how it affected me. Sleeplessness. Anger. I was having the same kinds of reactions the jurors were having. I felt abnormal. They put things in perspective for me."

Bates keeps his Labrador retriever, Lydia, in his chambers during stressful trials because "she's soothing" and "diffuses the tension." He said all courtroom players are vulnerable to stress, despite the tendency to deny it. "It was just as traumatic for judges, jurors, lawyers, everyone involved. There were a lot of victims in that case," he said.

Before the debriefing, when juror Barbara Snodgrass returned to work after the five-week trial to greetings of "Oh, you're back," she said, "My eyes filled with tears and I looked at them and said, 'Oh, no I'm not.' I realized I wasn't capable of functioning. I wandered around the house crying, not coping well with ordinary little things that had to be done."

Two comments made at the debriefing were most helpful, she said: "That when you think you're behaving strangely, you're not, you're behaving normal for an abnormal situation, and that it was the strongest people who sought help."

In addition to "a lot of terribly graphic evidence and detailed testimony," Bates said, people were haunted by the fact that the man convicted of the murders had no prior criminal record, was a chamber of commerce member and a well-employed computer services manager. "There's a real thin line between him and the rest of us," he said.

Doug Wheeler, vice president of Washington Victim's Services and one of those leading the debriefing, said the jurors had very conflicted emotions. "They had feelings of sympathy for the victims and the defendant," he said. "We had to work through that, that it's okay to feel sorry for the defendant because you can relate to him." Shielding Defendant's Rights

No one knows exactly how many juries have received debriefing or counseling; there are no agencies or organizations that monitor how courts handle juror stress. But Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Arlington, Va., a nonprofit organization providing technical assistance to state courts, is seeking funds for a nationwide inventory. The organization, said Munsterman, "is concerned with the ability of citizens to serve as jurors and how to make it feasible."

In addition to debriefings in Kentucky, Wisconsin and Washington state, Munsterman's count includes two in San Jose, Calif., and one in Vancouver, Wash., all in the past three years.

There has been little criticism of the process, judges and debriefing professionals said. But Steve Love, assistant court executive officer for the Santa Clara Superior Court in San Jose, thinks it's just a matter of time. One concern for defense attorneys is that jurors, who know they can depend on counseling after a trial, may find it easier to recommend the death sentence.

During the past year, two judges there have debriefed juries after a case involving a triple homicide and another one dealing with a random shooting spree in which a man killed seven people in an office building. In both cases, jurors recommended the death penalty and the judges upheld the decision.

"It could be an issue for a defense attorney," said Love, explaining that some may argue that debriefing could interfere with jurors' "feeling the importance" of the death penalty.

Indeed, Greg Paraskou, senior trial lawyer for the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office and the defense attorney on one of the trials using jury debriefing, said, "I think it's a serious step. I don't know if everyone's looked at the issue from all sides." If jurors know they are going to receive counseling after the trial, he said, it might "remove from them some of the sense of responsibility, especially when delivering the death penalty."

Also of concern to Paraskou is what obligation jury debriefers have if they discover jury misconduct. "Who has access to that information?" he asked. In most states, conversations between clients and therapists are protected by laws of client confidentiality.

Two other concerns were expressed by Lois Heaney, a trial consultant with the Oakland, Calif., office of The Jury Project, a national consulting firm that conducts sociological and psychological research on courtroom procedures. If jurors perceive debriefing as an offering from the state, she asked, could that "increase their affinity with the prosecution and therefore increase anti-defendant bias?" Could jurors view debriefing as "the judge essentially telegraphing to jurors, you have a tough decision, there's a lot of evidence against this defendant?" Judges queried about these issues replied similarly: Any form of counseling should be offered only with approval from the defense and the prosecution, and jurors should never be told beforehand that they may get assistance.

"It should be used sparingly," said Bates. "Only when the risks are real, not in your garden-variety case." He added, "All of these concerns are outweighed by the good: that it's going to help these people get on with their lives."

Kate Darby Rauch is a writer in Seattle.