The perils and perks of speaking out as a juror

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo! News

Only two of the six jurors in the controversial George Zimmerman trial have spoken out so far about their experience, despite intense public interest in how and why they declared the neighborhood watchman not guilty in the death of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But jury experts say the panelists' hesitance to step forward makes sense, given the intense emotions kicked up by the racially charged case and the risks associated with going public as a juror.

On Friday, the Zimmerman trial's sole nonwhite juror, who identified herself only as "Maddie," told Good Morning America in an interview that she believes the neighborhood watchman "got away with murder," which is sure to anger the 32 percent of Americans who said in a recent poll that they strongly disagreed with the jury's not guilty verdict. Florida Judge Debra Nelson forbade the media from reporting the names of the all-female panel in part for their own protection, but the jurors are allowed to step forward on their own volition at any time.

The only other juror in the trial who has spoken out, identified as B37, was quickly dissuaded from her intention to write a book about the case after an army of Martin defenders made their disapproval known on Twitter and other social media sites. The juror's agent quickly dropped her, and the unnamed juror released a statement apologizing for even floating the idea.

Despite that juror's skewering, Maddie decided to appear on national television to explain why she believed she had to acquit Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin in an altercation in 2012 but claimed he did so in self-defense. Maddie said she and other jurors believed in their "hearts" that the 29-year-old was guilty, but that self-defense law and the jury instructions prevented her from doing anything other than declaring Zimmerman not guilty.

"It's hard for me to sleep, it's hard for me to eat because I feel I was forcefully included in Trayvon Martin's death," Maddie, a mother of eight, said.

Speaking out as a juror can be therapeutic, say jury experts, but it also carries risks.

"It's very common for jurors to want to explain their verdict because in many instances they feel the verdict doesn't adequately convey what their thinking was," said Joseph Rice, a clinical psychologist and the president of the Jury Research Institute. "There's something cathartic about explaining your position. But, as we're seeing more and more, there's a price for fame."

The Zimmerman trial stoked strong reactions among the public that was largely divided along racial lines, which might have made jurors in the trial particularly eager to explain their decision. Martin was black, and Zimmerman is half-white and half-Hispanic.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 86 percent of African-Americans disapproved of the not guilty verdict, with 31 percent of whites disapproving.

"In this case specifically there's been a lot of pressure for the jurors to speak out," said Sonia Chopra, a senior litigation consultant with the National Jury Project consulting firm.

And there are advantages to talking about the often arduous civic duty of arguing with your peers for hours and sometimes weeks about whether someone should go to jail or walk free.

Studies have shown that some jurors, particularly in death-penalty cases and those involving more gruesome crimes, can suffer from symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder long after the trial is over.

Seven of the jurors who declared Scott Peterson guilty in the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son in 2005 disclosed in a book about the case, "We the Jury," that some of them went on antidepressants and one contemplated suicide because of the stress of deliberations. Two of the 18 jurors in the Charles Manson trial had an affair during their nine-month sequestration. Another had a heart attack, and one juror got divorced.

Chopra called it "cruel and unusual punishment" to prevent jurors from ever speaking about their experience deliberating, as Canada and some other countries do as a matter of law. But speaking about the trial in public can add its own stress, as you open yourself up to judgment from an often angry public.

"The therapeutic value comes from talking to friends, families, colleagues," Chopra said. "You can expose yourself to more stressors by going public, because there's the court of public opinion. That could just introduce a whole other layer of stress, which is disappointing because the public wants to know what happened."

There's also the risk of facing harassment from angry trial obsessives. "When they open that door, they're opening a Pandora's box to be scrutinized and harassed," said Susan Constantine, a Florida-based jury expert.

Constantine recalled that in Orlando, Fla., where Casey Anthony faced first-degree murder charges in the killing of her young daughter, local businesses put up signs saying "jurors not welcome here" after the jury acquitted Anthony in 2011.

Constantine said the Zimmerman case demonstrated that the decision to go public ultimately rests with each individual juror.

"The other juror already came forward, and we can see how she's been lambasted. Regardless of what (Maddie) says, it's not going to be the right answer for everybody," Constantine said.

But the juror testimonials after high-profile cases can offer a valuable glimpse into the criminal justice system, which average citizens tend to ignore absent a sensational trial.

"I understand their reluctance to put themselves out there, given how polarizing their decision has been," Chopra said of the Zimmerman panel. "I think it's unfortunate in some ways because it could make people not want to be on juries. We already have a hard time getting people to serve on juries. It's unfortunate that the public vilifies jurors who really did give up a lot of time of their lives."