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Serving Jury Duty? Why Jurors Are Often Left Without Counseling

A 2015 study by the National Center for State Courts found that just Alaska and Texas have laws providing for juror counseling in graphic trials.
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When Michael Burke-Pappas was summoned to jury duty in 2012, he assumed it would be for "something normal" — a traffic violation or domestic dispute — in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Instead, he heard the jarring case against a man named Besham Brian Sugrim, charged with slitting a prostitute's throat, stabbing her numerous times in the chest and dumping her nude body in a secluded industrial area in 2003.

The graphic evidence was presented to the 12 jurors over two weeks.

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"You hear about this stuff in Hollywood (movies) and it’s sensationalized, but to see it firsthand is hard to describe," Burke-Pappas told NBC News. "I would say it’s something that will haunt me for the rest of my days."

What Burke-Pappas believes would have been beneficial for his emotional state at the time — but is rarely afforded to jurors in such violent and traumatic trials — is counseling. A 2015 study by the National Center for State Courts found that just two states — Alaska and Texas — have laws providing for juror counseling in especially brutal cases.

Alaska’s statute says that a judge can grant counseling for murder, felony assault and sexual offense trials that includes up to 10 hours of either individual or group sessions for jurors.

In Texas, county commissioners are permitted to establish their own counseling programs for murder, child sexual assault and child abuse trials. The law, however, allows for no state funding.

Other states, including California, Illinois and New Jersey, have courts that might offer some form of counseling, but it's not enforced by any legislation.

"When you have a jury, you have 12 people taking on horrible pain for you," said Sharon Sedwick, an advocate for juror counseling in Texas. "I think they deserve more than $40 a day and a thank you."

Burke-Pappas said he flipped to the Investigation Discovery channel over the holidays during a program about a homicide investigator, when the memories of the Sugrim trial came flooding back. Sugrim was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

It wasn’t just the imagery and testimony that stayed with Burke-Pappas, but the idea of whether Sugrim was in fact guilty. Burke-Pappas said he took scrupulous notes during the trial as a way to "keep sane" because he couldn’t talk with his family or other jurors except during deliberations.

He eventually made peace that he made the right choice to send Sugrim to prison.

"You’re a fish out of water. You’re bombarded with all sorts of horrors and then you’re thrown back into the real world," Burke-Pappas said.

In a handful of cases, counseling has been offered in states where there normally is none on the local level.

A 2007 triple homicide in Cheshire, Connecticut, grabbed national headlines for its viciousness: Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were found guilty of raping and murdering mom Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, during a home invasion. Patriarch William Petit, a prominent physician, was the sole survivor.

Laura Kozma served as the jury forewoman on Komisarjevsky’s 2011 trial, hearing the disturbing details of the murders over three months. She said she bonded with another juror when the trial was over, and they became one another’s emotional support in the months when the public spotlight faded.

There were still sleepless nights, Kozma said, and the need to overcome even the sight of manila folders — which jogged her memory of the trial because they often contained the gruesome photographs of the victims.

"It took me a couple of years before I really realized, hey, I think I’m past this," Kozma said of the emotional trauma that weighed her down.

"When you have a jury, you have 12 people taking on horrible pain for you. I think they deserve more than $40 a day and a thank you."

Connecticut's Judicial Branch also did something it never had before: granted state-paid counseling services for the jurors. It was invaluable, Kozma told NBC News.

"We were thankful because something hadn’t existed before the state offered something. That was new," Kozma added.

She said she immediately relates to people who are serving on high-profile and emotionally painful trials, such as the ones last year involving Colorado theater shooter James Holmes and Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

"My advice is lean on the people around you, especially when it’s over," Kozma said. "We’ve all had difficult days."

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Since the Tsarnaev trial was a federal case, the jurors were able to get free counseling through the federal Employee Assistance Program. Jurors are considered employees of the court for a certain period of time, and therefore are eligible for voluntary counseling.

But Greg Hurley, an analyst with the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, said getting counseling at state and local levels is rare for a simple reason: lack of money.

"The biggest obstacle to juror counseling programs is concern over the costs," said Hurley, adding, "Juror counseling is just one of many issues around courthouses that all deserve time, attention and financial resources. Juror counseling is often just not prioritized high enough to get addressed."

Sedwick, the Texas advocate, hopes that can change — and for a personal reason.

In 2005, her 21-year-old daughter, Jennifer Cave, was found in the bathtub of a friend's Austin home. Her body had been partially dismembered and she was stabbed multiple times.

Sitting in the courtroom during the trial against her daughter’s killer, Sedwick witnessed the emotional toll on the jurors.

"There was one young (juror) in particular. She came in, and she was the age of my daughter, in her early 20s," Sedwick said. "Ten days later, she was not the same person."

Sedwick said that while the cost of counseling can be prohibitive for some jurisdictions, even a short debriefing after a violent trial would be beneficial.

The session could include what signs to look for with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, she said.

Sedwick plans to spend this year penning letters to every district attorney’s office in Texas and urge them to find additional ways to help jurors cope.

"We all have that innate sense of don’t talk about this, it’s very hard," Sedwick said. "But that’s what people need when it’s all done — they need to talk."