Those most acutely affected in high-profile cases like the Petit trial are the victim's family and the jury. But don't overlook the family of the defendant, said James Eisenberg, a forensic psychologist who directs the criminal justice program at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. Defendants' relatives "are going through the same grief, denial, and anger" as victims' families. Eisenberg said that attorneys and judges can be deeply affected as well.
The families in death penalty cases frequently are forced to relive the most nightmarish aspects of the evidence and testimony through a decade or more of appeals, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Eisenberg said. "If the family wishes to invest in those hearings, it is bringing out the same trauma and horror." The most recent Connecticut execution took place in 2005. The previous one was in 1960.
For jurors on death penalty cases, the responsibility of determining whether a defendant lives or dies can be disturbing. "There are cases where jurors report post-trial that they have trouble processing this. They have dreams about it. They have nightmares about it. They ruminate about it," said Solomon Fulero, an attorney and psychologist who teaches at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. "It's hard to imagine if you're not on the jury the effect of hearing about the kinds of things people do to each other."
Some jurors have suffered heart attacks while serving, and Fulero said the psychological stress persists "at the very least, a year post-trial."
Other jurors manage to work through the psychological aftereffects, either on their own, with the help of counseling, and often with the support and fellowship of fellow jurors. Many jury panels become cohesive and hold reunions that allow them to process some of most troubling aspects of the cases in which they've reached verdicts and determined sentences.
Executions don't eliminate the emotional grief that can plague many courtroom players. Eisenberg mentioned a defense attorney friend who remains troubled two years after attending his first execution "even though he felt justice had been done in the case." Even the judges who preside are subject to the psychological stresses of these cases, especially when the circumstances are as extraordinary as those in the Petit case.
The ability to transform grief into something constructive distinguishes those who adjust to enormous psychological blows like the brutalization of the Petits, from those who sink into the depths of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, psychologists and psychiatrists say.
Petit said he would devote himself to keeping the memories, spirit and activism of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 47; Hayley Elizabeth Petit, 17; and Michaela Rose Petit, 11, alive through the Petit Family Foundation. The races, tournaments and other events already scheduled for 2011 will support education, particularly of women in the sciences, and helping those affected by chronic illness and violence.