Gruesome court cases can take toll on lawyers, jurors

By the time Shayne Lund’s court case wrapped up this week, his lawyer had spent three years dealing with evidence relating to sex crimes against children and animals, wading through reams of graphic text messages and photos and hearing heart-wrenching testimony from victims.

As he left the Barrie, Ontario, courthouse after his client’s sentencing, Eginhart Ehlers said the experience had taken its toll.

“Police officers will stay on these types of cases for determined periods of time at the end of which it’s recognized in the meantime by the medical community that the effect on the individual is profound,” he said.

“Based on my experience with Mr. Lund and others, I have now turned down a number of these cases,” Ehlers said. “It has a profound effect on us, there’s no doubt about that.”

While Ehlers said he did not need counselling at this time, he stressed that he would not hesitate to seek help if it became necessary, adding that he has known court clerks to do the same in the past.

A rash of suicides among first responders has shone a spotlight on post-traumatic stress disorder in police and other public safety officers exposed to often disturbing situations in recent years.

Now several high-profile court cases are bringing growing recognition of the possible toll on the mental health of those in the legal system.

The Ontario Court of Appeal is set to hear a case next month of a woman who claims she developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being a juror at the trial of Michael Rafferty, who was convicted in May 2012 of kidnapping, sexual assault and first-degree murder in the death of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford.

The juror, who cannot be named, says she was brought face-to-face with Rafferty’s horrific crimes, suffered psychological injury as a result and is seeking compensation as a victim of crime.

A juror in the trial of the two men convicted of killing Tim Bosma told the Hamilton Spectator she struggled to return to normal life once the case ended in June, and suggested courts should provide on-site counsellors for jurors tasked with making sense of troubling evidence.

Meanwhile, Dr. John Bradford, the internationally renowned forensic psychiatrist who assessed notorious sex killer Russell Williams has openly discussed his PTSD in the wake of the case.

Shortly after watching video footage of Williams sexually assaulting two women, Bradford found himself breaking down emotionally, feelings that persisted for months, Bradford has said. He sought treatment and was officially diagnosed with PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress is typically brought on by exposure to death, serious injury or sexual violence, but it can also stem from repeated or extreme exposure to details of a traumatic event, said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s psychological trauma program.

Jurors, lawyers and judges involved in particularly horrific cases could certainly be at risk, she said, and each person’s threshold is different.

“There are significant individual differences because some people, they can do it for longer periods of time, and for some people it could be one time,” she said.

It’s important for people to watch for signs of trauma, such as flashbacks, nightmares, persistent negative beliefs and emotional detachment, and seek help if needed, she said.

In Ontario, jurors are only provided counselling if ordered by the presiding judge, but the province’s attorney general said last week he would look into developing a better support system.

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s member assistance program also offers counselling to lawyers, paralegals, law and paralegal students as well as judges and their family members. The organization recently approved a long-term mental-health strategy and a task force has been appointed to help implement it.

Prominent defence lawyer John Rosen, who represented Paul Bernardo, said while law schools do little to prepare students for the often shocking evidence they will handle, many in the profession grow desensitized with experience and are able to distance themselves from what they see at work.

“I have not had any difficulties … I tend to compartmentalize my cases away from my personal life,” he said.

That may not be the case with jurors, who are thrust in that position with little warning, he said, adding that jury members in the Bernardo case were offered psychological assistance. “They see it from a totally different perspective.”

By Paola Loriggio
The Canadian Press

 

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