Jury support inadequate: psychologist

More support should be offered for juries dealing with lengthy murder trials involving graphic crime-scene evidence such as the recent Bain case, Dunedin clinical psychologist and author Nigel Latta says.

David Bain (37) was acquitted last Friday by a retrial jury in the High Court at Christchurch on charges of killing five members of his family in Dunedin on June 20, 1994.

Court officials said the seven women and five men in the jury would be offered the chance to speak to a counsellor to help them deal with the 13-week trial and its aftermath.

"When you look at the material which juries have to look at, it's pretty horrible," Mr Latta said in an interview.

Many people were used to looking at gory images in films, but the effect was completely different when people realised they were looking at still pictures or videotape involving real people who had been killed, he said.

If jurors were exposed to images they found "quite traumatic" that could also have an effect on their ability to concentrate on some of the evidence and even, potentially, to think about some aspects of the case.

"I think it's asking a lot of the average person."

There were cases of jury members "breaking down in the middle of the trial".

The Bain trial was briefly adjourned in early April after a juror began crying during some of the evidence.

Law faculty researchers at Wellington's Victoria University and the Law Commission undertook a major study of criminal-trial juries in the late 1990s.

Hundreds of jurors were interviewed.

Nearly a quarter of them reported feeling tired or exhausted during and after jury service for various reasons, including the effort of concentrating on oral evidence for long periods, or because they worried about the trial and slept badly.

Mr Latta said there could be scope for more support for jurors during trials to ensure they were still functioning well.

It was hard to see how jurors could "make the best decisions" at the end of criminal trials if they were tired or feeling traumatised, he said.

"It's probably something we should have a closer look at," he said.

Prof Mark Henaghan, the University of Otago Law Faculty dean, said a positive effect of the Bain case was that it was raising community awareness of the challenges faced by jurors during lengthy trials.

"The system is too important for us to neglect juries," Prof Henaghan said.

Lengthy criminal trials could be "awfully brutal" in their physical effect on legal professionals, with judges and the respective lawyers often exhausted at their conclusion, he said.

Jurors could also be affected, and long cases could take some participants close to their limits.

Counselling support for jurors had been increased after the Law Commission study, but scope for further research and improvements remained.

Jurors were playing a vital community role and it was important that they were looked after and properly remunerated, he said.

 

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