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Cases can take a toll on jurors

In matters of life and death, seeing evidence, and choosing a fate, can wear hard on those picked.

Published July 15, 2006

A judge delayed John Couey's trial this week, deciding too many in the jury pool had strong feelings about the killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, and about Couey.

A juror in the case against Adam Davis said the smell of the bloody towels used to clean up after the murder of Valessa Robinson's mother will stay with her forever.

The decision to send Oba Chandler to death row was not contentious, but his face haunted one juror for several months.

The jury room was full of tears when the life or death decision in Brandon Scott Ware's case was debated. One juror said it was probably the toughest decision of his life.

ST. PETERSBURG - Jurors in death penalty cases have front row seats to some of life's most haunting stories.

They view photos of bloody crime scenes and surveillance tapes of the actual killing. They watch as the victims' relatives plead for justice and serial killers intimidate with dead-eyed stares.

Then they render a life or death decision and are sent on their way.

This week, the judge in the capital murder trial of John Couey spared 12 Lake County residents from that fate.

Still, the Couey case is a reminder that jurors on death penalty cases are in for a gut-wrenching ride.

The horrific details can leave jurors emotionally shot, experts say. And the trauma of playing God with someone's life can burn into their conscience.

"It might seem easy from the outside," said juror Anthony Arcaro. "But the armchair observers don't have to live with the consequences."

Anne Gambrell still remembers the smell of the bloody towels.

Seven years ago, Gambrell was a juror in the first-degree murder trial of Adam Davis, who was sent to death row for killing his girlfriend's mother. Davis, his girlfriend and another man ambushed the woman in her Carrollwood home, plunged a syringe full of bleach into her neck and stabbed her with a knife. She bled to death on her kitchen floor.

The towels the killers used to clean up were placed with the other evidence in the jury room.

They smelled so bad that the jurors asked that they be removed.

"I will never forget that smell," Gambrell said recently. "Not ever."

Jurors who sit through days of gruesome courtroom re-enactments can have similar emotional responses to those who witness crimes firsthand, said Roger Bell, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Louisville and an expert on juror trauma. Bell has counseled hundreds of jurors, including the ones who heard the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who cannibalized some of his victims.

Jurors in grisly cases often complain of sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety, lack of appetite and depression. Some lose interest in sex or experience physical ailments like hives, chest pains and ulcers. The torment can last a few days or a few years, Bell said.

One juror Bell counseled heard the case of a doctor who decapitated his wife. For weeks afterward she would look out the kitchen window while washing dishes and see a police officer in her yard lifting the decapitated head out of a black sack. It happened so often that she thought she was going crazy, Bell said. The images faded away after she learned through counseling that she was having a normal response to a traumatic event.

Mary Jane DeVault was on the jury that found Oba Chandler guilty in 1994 of killing an Ohio mother and her two daughters who had come to Florida on vacation. Afterward, DeVault thought she saw Chandler a few times in crowds. Her heart raced each time, until she remembered that he was behind bars.

"He had become really scary to me as we sat in court for two weeks," DeVault said. "He had that same cold look on his face. It was like he was trying to stare a hole through us."

Crimes against children can be particularly tough on some jurors, researchers have found. Children, especially preteens, are seen as vulnerable and innocent.

In the Couey case, for instance, jurors will be left with a detailed image of a small, helpless Jessica Lunsford terrorized in the dark, trying to claw her way out of a plastic bag, Bell said.

"That's not easy to get out of your head," Bell said.

* * *

In October 2004, Arcaro and 11 other jurors had just found Brandon Scott Ware guilty of first-degree murder for shooting an 88-year-old Pinellas County man in the head.

Arcaro knew that the following day he would have to vote for life or death. He jumped on a treadmill and ran for what felt like hours. He couldn't sleep. He had already lost his appetite.

In the jury room, Arcaro kept flashing back to the husband and how he must have wondered in his last moments whether his wife, who was with him, would survive. The jury eventually voted 7-5 to recommend that the judge sentence Ware to death.

"It will probably be the hardest decision I ever make," Arcaro said. "That type of responsibility stays with you."

Arcaro's reaction doesn't surprise Washington & Lee University law professor Scott E. Sundby. In researching his book A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty, Sundby found that jurors' greatest stress came from having a life in their hands.

Florida's death penalty system helps mitigate the responsibility. Unlike some other states, a Florida jury's decision on life or death is only a recommendation to the judge. But judges must give the recommendation "great weight" and usually go along with what the jury decides.

No matter the system, the gravity of the decision puts jurors in a potential pressure cooker, Sundby said.

Jury debates often boil over, especially if only a few jurors are holding out. The more contentious the deliberations, the greater the chance for lingering emotional problems, Sundby said.

Sundby profiled a woman who had been the lone holdout for a life sentence before finally buckling to the intense pressure from the other 11 jurors, who wanted death. She had been bullied, ridiculed and isolated.

The woman could barely sleep for two months, racked with anger and guilt that she had buckled based partly on the other jurors' mistaken interpretation of the jury instructions. She finally sought counseling.

"Her desire to rectify the mistake had come close to consuming her," Sundby wrote.

A study of over 1,100 capital murder jurors revealed that 35 percent of them would happily serve in a death penalty case again. Another 35 percent would do it again, but reluctantly, out of sense of civic duty. About 30 percent said they would do everything they could to get out of it.

One of the biggest complaints from death penalty jurors was the lack of legal guidance, Sundby found. The instructions can be confusing and riddled with legal jargon that jurors have difficulty deciphering.

"The ultimate decision largely comes down to each juror's sense of what justice requires," Sundby said.

* * *

Bell, the professor, recommended that judges in particularly violent or emotionally charged cases bring in a professional counselor after the trial to work with jurors who might want some help. One short session is often all a juror needs, he said. Professionals are also adept at spotting jurors who are having more severe problems.

It's difficult to predict how different events will affect individual jurors, Bell said. Some jurors go away relatively unscathed, while others have a hard timing shaking what they have experienced.

A juror who heard a trial about a deadly car crash might experience problems after hearing the squeal of tires. Others might recall images of a stabbing victim as they chop vegetables with a kitchen knife.

The trigger might be driving by the courthouse or hearing that a friend has been called to jury duty.

Or recalling the stench of bloody towels.

[Last modified July 15, 2006, 00:00:30]

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