Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 16:02 UK

Trials 'can have lasting impact'

By Mona McAlinden
BBC Scotland news website

Colin Slaven, Craig Boath, James Rennie,  John Milligan, John Murphy, Neil Strachan, Ross Webber and  Neil Campbell
The men convicted were (top, left to right) Colin Slaven, Craig Boath, James Rennie, John Milligan, (bottom, left to right) John Murphy, Neil Strachan, Ross Webber and Neil Campbell

"All I can say is there are certain images which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up," said one detective investigating Scotland's biggest paedophile network.

The officer was part of Operation Algebra, which recovered thousands of CDs and DVDs, hundreds of computers and thousands of harrowing images of abuse against children.

Eight men involved in the network have now been convicted, after a 10-week trial.

The convictions came after one of the most complex and challenging investigations carried out by Lothian and Borders Police, which revealed the abuse of babies and almost 125,000 indecent images, many at the most severe end of the scale.

Det Insp David Reid said he and his colleagues received counselling sessions every six months to help them cope, and the team were also able to request additional support at any time.

Offered counselling

But for ordinary people, like jurors, becoming involved in horrific cases and having gut-wrenching evidence inflicted upon them can have a lasting impact.

During this particular trial, members of the jury had to look at more than 40 images of child abuse.

Jurors also saw records of hours of graphic internet chats spanning more than four years, which featured descriptions of sadism, bestiality and abusing children with learning disabilities.

One description of a rape caused judge Lord Bannatyne to abruptly adjourn proceedings for a few minutes, without giving any explanation.

A woman who acted as a juror 32 years ago told me she still experiences memories and intrusive thinking around that
Dr Noelle Robertson

A detective with years of experience also had difficulty describing his feelings as he gave an account of a four-year-old girl's protests as she was abused.

The 14 jurors hearing the case, legal teams and journalists covering the story have all been offered counselling by the Scottish Courts Service and Crown Office.

The jury, which took more than 10 hours to reach decisions on 54 charges, was excused for life after Lord Bannatyne described the case as "lengthy and horrific".

Dr Noelle Robertson, a psychologist at the University of Leicester, recently published a report into the dangers of jurors facing trauma because of their exposure to harrowing and gruesome evidence.

Her survey suggested about a quarter experienced distress, often years after the trials had ended.

She said: "I have had an e-mail from a woman who said she acted as a juror 32 years ago and still experiences memories and intrusive thinking around that.

Ian Stephen
Dr Ian Stephen said professionals and jurors can be left traumatised by trials

"But, whilst we focused on the exposure to the harrowing evidence both in our study, and others that have been conducted, the thing that really seems to trouble most jurors is the deliberative process in the jury room, and the fact that they cannot discuss this after the event.

"I would think in a case such as this, where the experiences have been so shocking that the media and the public have been disbarred from seeing it, then the sense of isolation for those jurors might well be exacerbated."

Dr Robertson suggested the introduction of a screening programme to excuse people who may be particularly badly affected by serving on a jury.

"In the UK we already have supporters for those who are vulnerable witnesses," she said.

"This is a provision which could possibly be extended to jurors.

"One of the other alternatives we have is that we actually implement some form of basic screening process so that we could identify jurors who might be particularly vulnerable, because of their past histories, to the harrowing material which has been evident in this case."

'Lasting impression'

Forensic psychologist Dr Ian Stephen said the impact of a horrendous and complex case could affect both jurors and professionals.

"I think if you look at the length of the trial and the number of days the jurors are exposed to this kind of information - having to look at images, to read the transcripts of what's been said in chatrooms, leaves a horrific lasting impression for these people," he said.

"Witnesses, who've had to look at horrific pictures of bodies during trials have also been traumatised by that.

"I think one always assumes that because someone is professional that they're not affected by the kind of stimuli that they're exposed to.

Paul McBride QC
Mr McBride said lawyers in child abuse cases should be offered counselling

"But in my work, I've come across police officers who, many years after very serious trials, have been showing serious signs of trauma."

Leading Scots QC, Paul Bride, said during his 23 years on the bar he has never been offered counselling, despite working on numerous cases involving images of child abuse.

"It's often traumatic for lawyers, many don't look at the pictures," he said.

"A counselling facility should be available, it's a real issue."

Mr McBride also questioned whether it was appropriate for jurors to be shown images at the most severe end of the scale.

"Normally an expert will go through pictures of child abuse, determine what end of the scale they should be at and write a report about the images," he said.

"I think jurors should only be subjected to those images for evidential reasons - if it's not accepted that what the expert has described has actually taken place or if it's disputed that the person who has been abused is a child.

"There are issues over the human rights of jurors, their right not have to look at that kind of imagery.

"I think we have to be very careful about how we present these cases in future and to consider whether it's really necessary to show these kinds of images to the jury."

'Nightmares and flashbacks'

Dr Stephen said it was vital for people involved in horrific trials to be able to talk about their experiences.

"I think particularly for trials such as this, where the content of the material the juror is exposed to is so horrific, people who have had traumatic exposure should try to talk about it," he said.

"They should not to try to repress it and shut it away because what happens then is that the person becomes far more exposed to a post-traumatic stress reaction.

"This can give them nightmares, flashbacks and all sorts of psychological symptoms for years afterwards."

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