Twelve anonymous jurors in former police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial found themselves in the center of one of the most significant police brutality trials in American history.
After finding Chauvin guilty in George Floyd’s death, the jurors likely received an expression of gratitude from Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, a flier on coping with jury duty — and little else, according to those familiar with Minnesota courts.
Jurors face heavy stress in many cases, veteran court officials and trauma experts say, but they are especially vulnerable in high-profile proceedings such as Chauvin’s where protesters are demanding a former police officer be sent to prison for more than a decade, while his lawyer argued for acquittal.
“You have this trauma exposure, and you have the pressure of the decision, and the worldwide scrutiny, and the consequences for racial justice, and the lack of your typical coping strategies and support,” said Patricia Frazier, a University of Minnesota psychology professor who studies stress and trauma and also serves as an expert on sexual assault cases.
The jurors in Chauvin’s case will have a lot to process in the trial’s aftermath: The three-week trial was laden with tearful testimony from eyewitnesses haunted by bystander guilt, scientific charts tracking the second-by-second narrowing of Floyd’s airways under Chauvin’s knee and repeated videos capturing Floyd’s cries of agony and death.
On the third day of testimony, amid a series of those videos, Juror 44 — a white woman in her 50s — suddenly waved to get Judge Cahill’s attention and asked to leave the courtroom due to a “stress-related reaction.” She’d been awake since 2 a.m. that day, unable to sleep, the juror said.
“There is vicarious trauma exposure,” Frazier said. “You can’t look away. You can’t take the day off, you can’t talk to anybody about it.”
There are no mental health resources for jurors in state district court, a courts spokesman said. They receive a $20-a-day stipend, but no parking or child care reimbursements.
Unlike state courts, judges in federal court can offer jurors counseling by issuing an order recognizing jurors as temporary federal employees eligible for critical incident stress debriefings and other services under the Employee Assistance Program, said Chief U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim.
Tunheim said he spends a little time with jurors after trials to answer any questions they may have, and makes a point to observe who might be suffering as a result of their service.
Investigators who collect evidence on grisly murders and child rape, firefighters, and paramedics who see death in their day-to-day careers are often exposed to more horrific images than those shown to juries, said Steve Wickelgren, a former Minneapolis police officer who transitioned into mental health counseling. Still, first responders don’t have to deal with the pressure of having to decide guilt, he said.
Wickelgren, a former use-of-force instructor who trained Chauvin at the police academy, said he doesn’t agree with what his former student did, but he’s glad he doesn’t have to decide on the verdict.
“The process itself is overwhelming, the politics involved in this, the threat of rioters learning who you are and where you live,” Wickelgren said. ” … I give those people a lot of credit for going ahead and doing it.”
Susan Du • 612-673-4028