Alberta supporting jurors after mentally exhausting trials
On Wednesday, jurors in the Douglas Garland triple-murder trial in Calgary will deliberate on a case that has captivated Albertans since young Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents disappeared in June 2014.
Those jurors have seen graphic photos and heard detailed testimony about what the Crown says happened to the three victims leading up to their deaths – and that can take a toll.
Watch below: The Crown and defence had two very different closing statements on Monday in the Douglas Garland triple murder trial. Nancy Hixt has the details.
In 2015, Alberta was the first province to initiate a juror support program.
“As a juror, having to sit and listen to the testimony, listen to the graphic situations that are discussed, maybe even viewing photos and things like that, can be quite challenging and quite disturbing for some folks who have never had that experience,” explained Dora Newcombe, an account executive for Morneau Shepell, the organization that helped kick-start the assistance.
Free counselling can be accessed by jurors during a trial, or for up to two months after the conclusion of a case. Counsellors are available over the phone, or in person – whatever best fits the client’s needs.
“There are four sessions of counselling,” Newcombe said. “But we also have a clinical process in place so if somebody is experiencing more difficulties or challenges, they definitely can access more sessions.”
“The concern is for jurors’ emotional health, and offering help if they need it,” the Government of Alberta said in a statement. “The Juror Assistance and Support Program was created to help ensure that jurors who have been affected by trial evidence and what happens in the jury room can access counselling if they need to.”
Lloydminster resident Charles Sadd was chosen as part of the jury for a week-long murder trial in Peace River in 2011.
At 24 years old, he was nervous about the entire process, but especially about what he might see.
“What kind of pictures was I going to be looking at? Were the pictures going to be very graphic? Was I going to see a lot of bruises? Was I going to see a lot of blood?” he remembered asking himself.
At one point in the trial, he had to look over pictures of the victim at the crime scene. He said that was the most challenging part.
“I did feel a little bit sick to my stomach at first,” he said.
Even after the trial was over, those images didn’t disappear from his memory right away.
“I did think about those pictures, but as time elapsed over the years, I hardly think of it. But I do remember the case since day one.”
Sadd said he’s happy to hear free counselling is available, especially for jurors involved in longer cases like the Garland trial.
“That would’ve been great. I didn’t need one at the time but in a case like this – that’s going to last three weeks or a month – this would have been perfect,” he said.
The juror support program was modelled after something similar already in place through Morneau Shepell for Alberta judges.
Newcombe said jurors can experience post-trauma symptoms.
“Having trouble sleeping, sometimes they might have stomach challenges or nausea, it could be even muscle tension,” she said.
Newcombe said other indicators that might mean a juror is having a tough time coping with all the graphic information include forgetting things or having emotional reactions.
Sometimes, she said jurors might even need to talk about their personal situation instead of the case.
“People are hearing the testimony day in and day out while they’re serving on the jury. That’s the nature of the trial, but that can take a toll. And then also, maybe being separated from your social network, your family.”
Over the last year and a half, a few dozen jurors have taken advantage of the counselling. The numbers have steadily been increasing over time and Newcombe expects that trend to continue with high-profile cases like the Garland trial. Still, she says a stigma exists around asking for help and that’s a barrier she wants to break down.
Newcombe said counselling can help, just having someone to talk to about how jurors are feeling.
“It is normal, especially with what you’ve been through.”
All jurors in Alberta are eligible for the supports, regardless of the type of trial they are part of.
Since 2015, Ontario has also set up a helpline for jurors.
Watch below: The murder of Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents grabbed the hearts of Canadians. Kim Smith explains how the horrific details of the trial may be hard to forget.
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