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Experts: Defendants’ looks sway juries

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Published:   |   Updated: July 19, 2014 at 04:51 PM

— The road from arrest to trial often is paved with highlights and eye shadow — but not too much — and a high-collar schoolmarm dress or business-casual attire. A fresh haircut and a close shave also can go a long way.

The latest to employ the subliminal strategy of a courtroom makeover is Richard McTear.

McTear is accused of throwing a baby out of a moving car on Interstate 275 five years ago. When he was arrested, dreadlocks cascaded down his head and he looked every bit an angry — and cocky — young man with a record that included multiple arrests on charges of drugs and assault, burglary and theft.

Jury selection started last week on McTear’s first-degree murder trial. A jacket and tie have replaced a worn-out shirt and jeans, a short haircut has taken the place of the dreads. He looks like he could be a bank teller or a schoolteacher.

Many lawyers say that although justice is supposed to be blind, jurors have eyes and use them to help evaluate a defendant. Some research backs up that contention.

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According to an exhaustive 2010 paper by a pair of Cornell University legal researchers, more attractive defendants are less likely to be found guilty than unattractive defendants, and if they are found guilty, their sentences are more lenient.

The study, titled “When Emotionality Trumps Reason,” determined “attractive defendants were convicted less often, punished less severely, rated happy, likeable, trustworthy and less responsible for charges being brought against them than were less attractive defendants.”

Amy Singer is president of Trial Consultants, a Gainesville company that provides jury research and trial preparation assistance for defense lawyers. Her company consulted on how to dress and present Casey Anthony to the jury in an Orlando courtroom three years ago. She was being tried in the death of her toddler daughter, Caylee. Singer said appearances are important in court. Looks might not swing cases every time, but how a defendant looks can give an edge to defense attorneys, who are happy to get any advantage, she said.

“Appearances are important,” Singer said. “People who are more attractive, who dress nicely, they get the job, they get the date, the money. They are better off than those who aren’t attractive.”

And in court, she said, “defendants perceived as attractive tend to get not guilty verdicts.”

The reason: Juries can’t put aside stereotypes, she said. Thugs look like thugs — same for rapists and killers.

“Thank goodness people pay attention to stereotypes,” she said. “Stereotypes are nothing more than shorthand for ways to sizing people up.”

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The makeover — and an effective defense team — seemed to work for Anthony in Orlando in 2011. Her appearance was transformed from that of a young and reckless party girl, depicted in Facebook photos before the death of her child, into an earnest young woman at trial, hair pulled back into a bun or ponytail and wearing conservative clothes.

She was acquitted of the murder charge.

Singer said the science of courtroom makeovers is refined to the point where she can recommend an outfit and hairstyle based on the types of people sitting in the jury box.

Veteran criminal defense lawyer Byron Hileman rolled his eyes at that.

“I’ve talked to jury consultants,” Hileman said. “I’m sure there are instances where those kinds of things make a difference, but it’s not a science. It’s a matter of subjective judgment. I figure my judgment and my team’s judgment is just as good as anybody else’s.

“I do think it’s important,” he said. “The reason is that people get impressions of other people. If (clients) come in wearing jail suits, that suggests that they’re guilty of something. Or if they come in unkempt. It has nothing to do with the issues of trial, but it might influence judgment.

“We try to dress them as normally as one would dress in a courtroom. Hopefully, the impression they make is that they are like any other ordinary person in court. I just want them to look neat and normal. It’s more of a common-sense sort of thing.”

Some of his clients, he said, resist the courtroom clean-up.

“I think some of them don’t care a whole lot,” he said. “We try not to give them a choice. It’s in their own best interest.”

If a client is indigent and can’t afford good clothes, Hileman provides them.

“We give them civilian clothes,” he said. “We have a clothes bank at my firm, and if families can’t provide clothing, we can.” The clothes, he said, come from the racks in secondhand stores.

Count Paul Sisco among the lawyers who think drastically changing a defendant’s look is overrated.

“I don’t think those kind of parlor tricks are all that effective,” said Sisco, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor who now is a defense lawyer. “Jurors and judges are very good at making credibility judgments, and appearances contribute to that.

“When someone tries to put on an effect or dress (out of character) or re-create an image contrary to how they normally act, they are not being sincere to their person.”

Jurors can spot that, he said.

“I really think when someone is sitting in judgment of someone else, they can sense the comfort in how a person normally looks and how they react,” Sisco said. “I’m a firm believer that humans are very good judges of sincerity and credibility, and you’re hurting yourself when you go over the top.”

Sometimes courtroom makeovers end well for defendants; other times they don’t:

A decade-and-a-half ago in Hillsborough County, Valessa Robinson, a Carrollwood teenager who along with her boyfriend and an accomplice killed her mother, transformed from a wild unrepentant teenager seen in a video proclaiming a never-ending love for her boyfriend to what looked like a private school honor student at trial. She ended up getting a relatively light sentence of 15 years in prison, and her boyfriend was sentenced to death.

Dee Dee Moore was arrested five years ago, charged in the murder of Abraham Shakespeare, a multimillionaire courtesy of the Florida Lottery. When she was arrested, she was an unkempt bleached blonde with dark roots. At her trial, she was a brunette, hair pulled back, dressed in a stylish suit. Didn’t work. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The makeover didn’t work for Humberto Delgado, whose mug shot taken in August 2009 showed him with wild hair and wilder eyes. He had just been charged with killing Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts in Sulphur Springs. At trial, he had short hair and was well-dressed. The jury convicted him, and a circuit judge gave him the death sentence.

Jennifer Mee was a teenager to be pitied when she appeared on national television in 2007 for being unable to stop hiccuping. From there, she spiraled into thuggery, luring a man she met online to a robbery that ended in the man’s homicide. The teen was convicted of first-degree murder last year and was sentenced to life in prison, though in court she looked like a young woman you might see in church on a Sunday morning.

♦Dontae Morris, convicted of killing two Tampa police officers four years ago, was sentenced to death in May. His appearance changed dramatically while he awaited trial, though in front of the jury, he still had long dreadlocks and a beard and wouldn’t wear a jacket or tie.

In other cases, permission from a judge was sought for a makeover.

In May, a judge allowed a gang member in Pasco County to use makeup to cover his tattoos during his murder trial.

James Barron was charged with killing a rival gangbanger in 2011. Barron argued that the ink, including a teardrop on his cheek and dollar signs on his eyelids, would prejudice the jury. The judge allowed the cover-up.

The makeover didn’t work, though the change in his appearance was dramatic. Barron was convicted and sentenced to back-to-back life sentences

Five years ago, John Allen Ditullio Jr., a neo-Nazi charged with the murder of a Pasco teenager, asked the court to use makeup to cover up a swastika on his neck and an expletive visible above his shirt collar. The judge granted the request and a licensed cosmetologist was brought in before each day of trial to apply makeup, at taxpayers’ expense.

In the end, Ditullio was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

 

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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