ST. LOUIS • Some criminal defendants have a face only a mother could love. And Mom's not on the jury.
Lawyers have long assumed that presenting a groomed, decently dressed client can make a difference at trial. But what happens if — even with good hygiene and wardrobe — someone is simply not good looking?
A new national study says some jurors may be 22 percent more likely to convict an unattractive defendant than an attractive one under the same conditions. And they may recommend tougher sentences.
Some St. Louis-area lawyers said they're not surprised.
William Lucco, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who practices in Edwardsville, believes an attractive face can sway a jury but said that he has never worried about having an unattractive client, because there is not much he could do about it.
"If a person's ugly, then the person's ugly," Lucco said. "You can put them in nicer clothes, but you can't do plastic surgery on them."
Researchers at Cornell University, who released a summary of their work last week, set out to find why previous studies showed an "attractive bias" among jurors. They said they discovered, after testing 169 psychology students, that jurors who tend to process information with emotion rather than reason also tend to consider a defendant's looks.
It seems to reinforce the notion that defense lawyers need to do their best to work with what nature gave, or didn't give, their clients. Often, they keep a closet of clothes available, in case someone doesn't have a nice shirt and tie for court. They typically tell clients to cut their hair, shave and cover tattoos.
"I think it's a huge concern," said defense attorney Jolene Taaffe, who is based in St. Louis. "You want your client to put their best foot forward. You don't want them to look like they just came in off the street."
Lucco recalled wondering how jurors might react to defendants who looked naturally mean. "It's not good if your client looks menacing," he said.
He said that because trials are superficial by nature, it's no wonder that first impressions are so important. "You have just an hour or two to tell a person's story," Lucco explained. "Jurors don't really get to know the true character of a defendant or witnesses."
Taaffe described a recent case when a prospective juror admitted that looks mattered.
The lawyer asked a woman charged with a methamphetamine-related crime to wash her hair and change her dirty clothes before a recent trial in Jefferson County. The client didn't listen.
During jury selection, a potential juror told the judge that the woman's appearance gave him pause. "He told the judge she looks like she does meth and he couldn't be fair," Taaffe recalled. "First impressions are important."
Andy Hale, a former St. Louis County prosecutor, said a cleaned-up defendant often doesn't look at all like the person arrested. That's why prosecutors try to get police mug shots into jurors' hands.
"You want him to look scary," said Hale. "You want jurors to see what he looked like back when he robbed someone, or sold drugs."
Hale, now a defense attorney with an office in the county, said he provides clean clothes and a good haircut for his clients. "We do our best to make sure they look their best in court," Hale said.
Appearance bias can also apply to witnesses and attorneys. "Any prosecutor wants their witness to look as good and credible as possible," Hale said.
Not everyone is convinced that appearance matters so much. Michael Calvin, a retired St. Louis Circuit Court judge who served nearly 30 years overseeing criminal trials, said he never heard an attorney or potential juror raise a concern about a defendant's appearance.
"The jury instructions are supposed to be designed to protect against that," Calvin said. "They are instructed to concentrate on the evidence."
As part of the Cornell study, theoretical jurors were each given the same details from a criminal assault case, including witness testimony, evidence reports and both sides' closing arguments.
The defendant's profile for each case was the same: race, gender, hair and eye color, age and various descriptive information. The only difference was a high-resolution color photograph taken from the Ohio Department of Corrections database.
Researchers used a sampling of about 100 people to apply an "attractiveness rating" to each of 18 photos of white males, who were within a five-year age range. The highest and lowest four were shown to the test jurors, whose also had been separated into two categories based on how they tended to process information: rational and experiential.
Rational thinkers tend to emphasize analysis, fact, and logical argument. Experiential processors tend to rely on emotion and personal experience. Everyone uses some combination of the traits.
Although both groups convicted attractive defendants at similar rates, the experiential processors were 22 percent more likely to convict less-attractive defendants.
And while rational processors did not register differences in the sentences they recommended, experiential processors averaged sentences 22 months longer for the less attractive.
In the end, a poll of the "jurors" showed they agreed with the ratings of which "defendants" were attractive and which not.
The full study, "When Emotionality Trumps Reason," was to be published in the publication Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
USING THE RESULTS
Cornell's researchers say the study may alert attorneys defending less-attractive people to try to pick rational thinkers when questioning prospective jurors.
Jury consultant Matt McCusker said most criminal defendants choose not to testify at trial, so the jury's only impressions come from visual cues.
"In some ways, courts already see this as an issue," said McCusker, of Tsongas Litigation Consulting in Seattle. "There's a reason criminal defendants are given a chance to change into civilian clothes for trial."
Courts know that an seeing a defendant in a jail jumpsuit can unfairly sway a jury's opinion, he said.
But dressing a defendant for court also must make sense. "If you take someone from a modest background and put them in an Armani suit, it doesn't fit them and they may not be comfortable," McCusker said. "Coming in a tuxedo to court is not going to help them out, either."