Jurors can receive psychological counseling for criminal trials

Gruesome photographs and graphic details; emotional testimony; the stress of making a life or death decision — all elements of a capital murder trial rarely, if ever, fail to leave an impact on those involved, especially a member of a jury.

Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman could see the devastating effects in the eyes of jurors who earlier this month heard nearly 3 ½ weeks of testimony he described as “very emotional and painful.”

Some jurors even cried during parts of the trial, he recalled.

“This is not an easy thing for anyone to listen to,” said Putman, who successfully prosecuted William George Davis for killing four Tyler heart patients. “As we were in trial, we could see that, emotionally, it was taking a toll on the jurors.”

He said he recognized that potential even before the trial began and set in motion a plan to help to those in need.

As jurors listened to testimony in the punishment phase of Davis’ trial, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson was in a different courtroom asking Smith County Commissioners to approve participation in a new program designed to help jurors involved in hearing certain evidence.

As of January 1, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allows reimbursements for up to 10 hours of psychological counseling for grand jurors or jurors in criminal trials involving graphic evidence or testimony.

Putman informed jurors at the end of the trial Wednesday the new program is offered upon request through victims’ assistance in his office. According to the law, eligible jurors have up to 180 days after they are dismissed from service to seek reimbursement.

“Based on some of the testimony that was provided in a recent trial, our office felt that this was something that would be a good thing to help jurors who sometimes sacrifice weeks or months and are required to hear and see very graphic images and testimony,” Wilson told commissioners. “We think this would be a good thing to support jurors who are the backbone of our criminal justice system.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to offer the service to Smith County jurors.

Testimony in the Davis trial showed the former nurse injected air into a victim’s arteries, causing brain damage and death. All the victims had undergone heart surgery at CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Louis and Peaches Owen Heart Hospital and were expected to recover until Davis intervened. 

During the punishment phase of the trial, jurors heard testimony that Davis is suspected of killing three other patients and seriously injuring five others.

“It was very heavy, emotional testimony and we were grateful the legislature enacted that,” Putman said. “We wanted to make sure the commissioners approved.”

Former judge Cynthia Kent said she recognized the need for such a program while presiding over nearly a dozen death penalty cases in the 114th District Court. Although there was no legislative support at the time, Kent said she proceeded on her own.

Kent said she made it a practice to meet with the jury at the conclusion of a capital murder trial and offer to provide counseling to any member who requested it.

“We had jurors that it was emotional for them … difficult,” she said. “Sometimes they hear [stuff] they never would have heard in their lifetime unless they were on a jury.”

Kent said during her time on the bench, only one juror took her up on her offer.

Wilson said funds for requested reimbursements will come from the victims’ assistance budget maintained through the district attorney’s office.

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Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: "Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook," and "A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson.