Tori Stafford juror argues she was traumatized during the trial
A juror from the trial of Michael Rafferty who was convicted of first degree murder in the death of eight-year-old Tori Stafford speaks at the office of Legate and Associates LLP in London, Ont. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)
The jury’s trip to the place where Woodstock school girl Tori Stafford was murdered was considered by the Crown to be a necessity.
It was seen as crucial at Michael Rafferty’s trial, along with a lot of the toughest evidence to hear and see, to bring the jury to that quiet, peaceful place near Mount Forest and to corroborate the evidence of star witness and Rafferty’s co-murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic.
It was a beautiful sunny day in 2012, recalled Kevin Gowdey, the now-retired former Elgin County Crown attorney and director of Crown operations in Ontario’s west region, when the jury arrived on a bus and quietly walked through where the eight-year-old was bludgeoned to death.
“We knew it would be difficult for them and traumatic, but it’s a moment I won’t forget — the picture of us standing there in silence as the jury arrived on the scene, following the instructions they’d been given,” said Gowdey, who was part of the prosecution team.
One juror brought some purple flowers — the colour was Tori’s favourite — that were briefly placed on the spot where the little girl’s body was found three months after she disappeared in 2009, bringing the tragedy home “in a real and powerful way.”
“It really was surreal,” Gowdey said. “I signed up for a job that involved being subjected to horrors and other people’s traumas, but the jurors didn’t.”
For months after, a 57-year-old woman, one of the Rafferty case jurors, played the scene in a looping video in her mind. Only, she could add all of the horrible details of the girl’s death that were placed before her for almost three months in a London courtroom.
“What would play in my head (was) I was standing at the edge by the fence, watching all this happening and not being able to save her,” the London woman said.
The juror, whose identity is protected by court order, is heading to Ontario’s highest court on Tuesday, in a landmark case, hoping to overturn a divisional court ruling that denied her victim’s compensation for her post-traumatic stress disorder developed after hearing and seeing the grisly details of the case.
That included photos of the crime scene, detailed forensic evidence and the chilling testimony of a confessed murderer, McClintic.
The woman has stepped forward to describe the vicarious trauma experienced by some jurors who must listen to the most gruesome and violent evidence in the worst cases. And she says she’s not alone.
“When you’re going through this, because it’s day after day and for so long, I felt that I was there, almost like a brainwash,” she said in a recent interview.
She described short-term memory loss, bouts of anger, over-vigilance concerning her children’s safety and blowing her retirement savings and her children’s education funds with shopping sprees in vain attempts to find comfort.
“I switched up my living room furniture four times,” she said.
But there’s no intensive help for jurors — only what they find and pay for themselves — who, simply by doing their civic duty, find themselves debilitated and victimized by a criminal act.
Tuesday’s Ontario Court of Appeal hearing focuses on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board’s refusal to aid the woman, arguing she doesn’t meet its definition of a crime victim.
The divisional court upheld that decision.
The woman’s lawyers, London’s Barbara Legate and Dan Macdonald, will make an unprecedented pitch to redefine who’s considered a victim under the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act.
While there may be some in-house help for others in the justice system, other than some counselling through the police, jurors are often simply thanked for their help and sent on their way with no real response to their trauma.
Gowdey was instrumental in finding help for the juror and has taken on the mental health of jurors as a critical issue for the justice system.
He learned about the woman’s plight after she and another juror decided to go to Woodstock months after the verdict and do their own “Tori Walk,” along the path the little girl took before her abduction, “to clear our minds.”
Victoria (Tori) Stafford
They ended up near the Woodstock police station where they met with Chief Bill Renton. The woman said she wanted to congratulate him on the investigation and tell him she wanted to be there when they demolished Rafferty’s car.
After their conversation, Gowdey was contacted and he helped arrange for the woman to get help through the trauma program at London Health Sciences Centre.
He didn’t stop there. While Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said last month he’s looking to improve support for traumatized jurors, a committee within his own ministry has been quietly tackling the issue for some time.
In January, the province will provide jurors with a hotline they can call to get help whenever they need it, reports said Monday.
Gowdey helped to get it started. He and the juror met with ministry representatives two years ago. The woman told her story and “people were deeply affected by it.”
That led to discussions about trauma experienced by jurors and others working in the courts. But, Gowdey said, post-traumatic stress disorder treatment is so specialized and intensive, it requires the right program to give the best help.
The plan hadn’t reached the structure and funding stage by the time Gowdey retired in September. He said he’s volunteered to continue with the committee because he feels so strongly about the issue.
“There’s much more awareness about people’s mental health issues,” he said. “Yet, we’re still nowhere in terms of helping these poor jurors.”
Psychologist Peter Jaffe, academic director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women and Children at Althouse College at Western University, agreed that vicarious trauma in the justice system needs to be addressed — not just for jurors, but all participants in the court system.
Jurors, in particular, are vulnerable. Jaffe said it should “become normal protocol across Ontario that we prepare juries beforehand and that we provide services for them after if they are exposed to traumatic material.
“It’s not about every juror suing the province of Ontario — it’s about the province of Ontario having policy and funding in place to ensure we do prevention and early intervention,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have waited to this point.”
Jaffe has done work with American judges, “and it’s across all (U.S.) states that I’ve worked with that judges raise this issue and ensure that jurors are referred for counselling.”
Not every juror will react to evidence the same way, he said. He’s seen various reactions during the many times he’s had to testify in serious cases.
“You can see in their eyes that some are really focused and paying attention and others are really inside their own private space, feeling traumatized by what they are hearing.”
Gowdey pointed out the potential Rafferty jurors were warned in advance by the judge during the selection process that the evidence was going to be difficult to hear.
“That was said to each potential juror, but nobody can prepare you for standing on that hillside on a sunny day thinking about what Rafferty and McClintic did to this poor little girl,” he said.
“Nobody could prepare you for that.”