From chilling crime scene evidence to graphic autopsy photos to emotional testimony, jurors assigned to the Kayleigh Slusher murder trials were subjected to their own type of potential trauma.
Anticipating this sort of “disturbing” evidence, court officials for the first time used county mental health services to debrief the jurors following the reading of the verdicts in Napa County Superior Court on May 30.
Sara Lynn Krueger, 27, and Ryan Scott Warner, 29, who were accused of torturing Krueger’s 3-year-old daughter Kayleigh to death back in 2014, were found guilty of first degree murder and assault on a child causing death. Their sentencing is scheduled for July 27.
There were 12 jurors for each defendant’s trial, which took place simultaneously in the same courtroom, as well as three alternates each. Jurors were given the option of participating in a group debriefing with Dr. Joel Mostow, Napa County’s psychiatric medical director, after each verdict was read.
Individuals may experience trauma after being a victim of or witnessing a horrific event like a shooting, rape, or natural disaster, Mostow said during a phone interview on Thursday.
“In this case the trauma was actually the proximity to the testimony, which was really horrific,” Mostow said.
The jurors had two sources of trauma, he said. Not only did they have to view evidence and testimony relating to the abuse and murder of a toddler but they also had to make the decision about what verdict to deliver to each defendant, he said.
During the debriefing, Mostow, the jurors, and any participating alternates went over the experience of the trial, discussing their thoughts and feelings.
This is the first time that jurors get to talk about this, Mostow said. Jurors are not allowed to talk about the trial to anyone – not even family members or other jurors – while the trial is still on. Their first opportunity to talk to each other is during their deliberations, but they still don’t get to discuss their feelings until the trial is over, he said.
“The debriefing is actually a time when they can talk about their emotional reactions to it,” Mostow said. Although Mostow wouldn’t say exactly how individual jurors were affected by the trial, he said that people having the same experience may have symptoms ranging from intrusive thoughts to extreme anxiousness or even numbness.
The trauma may cause someone to feel that they need to always be on guard, waiting for the next bad thing to occur, Mostow said.
People may feel paranoid, depressed or have blunted emotions, he said. “They feel like the world is a dangerous place – their whole sense of themselves and the world is damaged.”
The debriefing aims to help jurors recognize and deal with these types of feelings.
“The idea is to inoculate the person with the debriefing,” Mostow said. “If you talk about it early you may prevent some of the suffering down the line.”
An important part of the debriefing is to have affected individuals realize that their feelings, which may be uncomfortable, are normal reactions to trauma, he said. Sharing their experiences helps people feel like there’s not something wrong with them, he said.
During the 2-3 hours Mostow spent with the Krueger and Warner jurors, the jurors’ feelings were normalized and, if someone needed advice or referrals, Mostow was able to provide that guidance. Mostow said that he also assured the jurors that they experienced the trauma for a good reason.
“That helps a lot,” he said. “The last thing that you want to feel is that you did this for nothing.”
The Slusher trials were the first time that the courts used the Mental Health Division’s debriefing services. The agreement between the courts and Health and Human Services, which offers debriefing services to jurors and court staff at no cost to the court, has been in place since 2014.
Napa County Superior Court CEO Richard D. Feldstein said that he approached judges and Health and Human Services with the idea after seeing a similar program in Orange County.
“I would say anytime that we have a trial with a great deal of evidence … people might find disturbing, we would want to provide this service,” Feldstein said. The debriefing seemed helpful to those who attended, he said.
Since this was the first time that a debriefing was used following a trial, participants were asked to fill out surveys anonymously providing feedback.
The Register was provided with seven of these surveys, each of which said that the debriefing was helpful.
One participant said: “It affirmed our feelings and allowed us to finally talk about our experience. It was also beneficial that it was inclusive of people present through the trial.”
Another wrote: “It helped to find other jury members having the same feelings.”
Most individuals who serve on a jury don’t have any specialized training to deal with trauma, so, when they witness this kind of evidence and testimony, it should be expected that they experience some sort of short-term distress, said Bill Carter, mental health director at Napa County Health and Human Services Agency.
For someone to have a response to trauma is normal, he said.
Even if the trial itself isn’t the main source of trauma, there could be something about it that triggers a past trauma, Carter said. In a group of 12 jurors, he said, there’s bound to be someone who has experienced trauma before.
“We’re pleased to offer this,” Carter said. “It’s important to bring our resources to bear in a situation like this.”
Carter said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the service is used more frequently now that it’s been implemented successfully once.
“You’d want to use this when folks have been in a trial that’s highly stressful,” he said. “When you see pictures or hear stories about somebody being harmed, that in and of itself is a traumatic experience.”