‘Secondary trauma’ likely to affect Parkland jurors if it hasn’t already, mental health experts say

New research is finding that jurors assigned to traumatic trials, such as the Parkland school shooting case, could benefit from post-trial counseling.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – New research is finding that jurors assigned to traumatic trials, such as the Parkland school shooting case, could benefit from post-trial counseling.

Right after the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre we heard from students and staff members who were gripped by the terror of that day.

“Two of my friends were shot dead right next to me,” student Samantha Fuentes said.

“The barrel of that AR-15 just ambushed our classroom,” a teacher told Local 10 News. “You feel the vibrations in your chest as the gunshots are getting louder.”

“I was shot four times in my right arm, my right lung, some of my ribs -- I had surgery on my abdomen,” Madeline Wilford, who survived the shooting, said.

We’ve also heard emotional testimony from family members of those who were murdered.

“We will always hesitate when answering the question, ‘how many kids do you have?’” Annika Dworet, who lost her son Nick in the shooting, said.

During the penalty phase trial, medical examiners explained to jurors the heartbreaking way they died.

“(It) caused an explosion inside the skull,” a medical examiner told jurors, describing Joaquin Oliver’s fatal injuries.

But during the penalty phase, jurors saw something the rest of the public didn’t – evidence so graphic, so sensitive, the court prohibited it from being shared with the public. This included autopsy and crime scene photos.

They also viewed surveillance video of Nikolas Cruz gunning down staff members and students that day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“This particular case, the Cruz case, is an exceptional case based on all the horrific facts that are in there,” said Craig Trocino, Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of the Miami Law Innocence Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law.

Also consider that jurors in this case walked the path the shooter did, viewing the blood-stained hallways and classrooms of the 1200 Building where the shooting occurred -- preserved as a crime scene since the massacre.

“From the jurors’ perspective, they have had to see this and absorb it and internalize it,” Trocino said. “We are learning more and more these days about something called secondary trauma -- if they are not having it now, they will eventually.”

“There is a growing body of evidence that jurors who witness horrific cases, in the form of video autopsy, photos, testimony can actually experience PTSD-like symptoms,” said Dr. Dan Bober, chief of psychiatry for the Memorial Healthcare System.

Experts say harrowing cases like this one can haunt jurors long after they leave the jury box.

“In particularly the Parkland trial, there’s a lot of trauma there,” Bober said. “There’s a lot of graphic videos and autopsy photos and testimony. And so, any person who has been exposed to this would be going through an extremely stressful event and has the possibility of developing vicarious trauma.”

While attorneys and judges may be accustomed to viewing graphic images, jurors are not.

“It was only recently that lawyers started being aware of it,” Trocino said. “Back in the day, in the early 90s when I started as a lawyer (I) had to face these things … You couldn’t get emotional, you had to be macho -- rub some dirt on it -- get back on the field and play, but now we know better.”

He adds there is growing awareness in the legal community of the mental health impacts to jurors exposed to emotional testimony and evidence while performing their civic duty.

“Jurors are coming out of their community, out of their jobs, they are going through this process,” he said. “They are not allowed to talk to their family or friends about what is going on … and we need to support them … after the verdict is rendered is when they should be told, ‘This is a real thing. If you are feeling this way, these are the symptoms and here is a number you can call to get help.’”

Those who are concerned about their mental health are urged to contact the National Institute of Mental Health, which has numerous resources for those in need.

Local 10 News asked the 17th Judicial Circuit Court on Sept. 15 whether they plan to offer post-trial counseling to the Parkland jurors and have yet to receive a response.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."