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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Physical Appearance Matters in the Courtroom

On Behalf of | Apr 27, 2013 | Courtroom

Appearance isn’t everything, but it does play a big role in how people perceive you. This is true at work, the gym, the grocery store and at a bar, so it should come as no surprise that a judge or jury will not only judge you based on the facts of the case, but also on how you look in the courtroom.

One of the toughest jobs for a defense attorney is to defend someone at trial who “looks like” a person who would commit the crime in question. In a drug delivery case, you do not want your client to have corn rows, gold teeth and a neck tattoo. In a domestic violence case, you do not want your client to have a mullet, confederate flag belt buckle, and a type of t-shirt, which is literally referred to as a “wife beater.” Most stereotypes have an element of truth to them, so often the defense attorney is taxed with defending a client who “looks the part” for his given offense.

When I was cutting my teeth as a young defense attorney in a busy public defender’s office, any time someone in my office was assigned a child molesting case, the first thing everyone else at the lunch table asked was “well, does he look like a child molester?” Such a question sounds about as scientifically valid as phrenology, but this is actually a very important consideration. The general public, which comprises juries, tends to associate weird behavior with a weird appearance. Someone who looks weird and creepy, is more likely to do weird and creepy things, or so the people believe. Of course, this is not always true, and that is precisely why normal-looking, sick people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Jerry Sandusky managed to get away with their crimes for so many years.

One time, my mentor in the public defender’s office taped a mug shot of a very creepy-looking defendant to the lunchroom refrigerator, and asked everyone to guess his charges. Of course, everyone assumed he was some kind of sex offender. Wrong! This poor guy, who had the misfortune of looking like a pervert right out of central casting, had merely been charged with writing bad checks. The point of this exercise was to show that if legal professionals are susceptible to falling into the trap of “weird appearance equals weird behavior,” then think how a jury must perceive certain defendants at trial.

Just as certain looks pose a disadvantage, being attractive can be quite advantageous, especially in certain types of cases. Although I am a criminal defense attorney, I get calls about all kinds of civil cases, which I then refer to lawyers with the appropriate expertise. On several occasions, I have referred work-place sexual harassment cases to plaintiff’s sexual harassment lawyers. Some of the first things these experienced attorneys ask when receiving such a referral are “is she good looking?” and “how old is she?” It might seem both ironic and inappropriate for an attorney to ask such a question about a potential sexual harassment plaintiff, but in actuality, these are very relevant questions. Jurors are far more likely to believe that a young, attractive woman is the victim of sexual harassment than an older woman or unattractive woman of any age. Likewise, if a man brings a sexual harassment claim against an attractive female, particularly a woman far more attractive than he is, the case is going to get laughed out of court, even if he has a legitimate claim.

The good news is that most aspects of a person’s appearance are mutable. A skilled lawyer and his assistants must give the client who “looks the part” a make-over prior to trial. Famous courtroom make-overs include Attorney Leslie Abramson dressing the Melendez Brothers like preppy teenagers for their patricide trial, even though they were both grown men by the time of the trial, and the Jodi Arias defense team transforming her from looking like a sexy vamp into a frumpy librarian. There might not be enough time to repair “Mountain Dew mouth” or “meth mouth” prior to trial, but things as basic as cutting the mullet, concealing sloppy prison tattoos, and putting a guy in a suit and tie can go a long way.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, with a strong interest in the intersection of the social sciences and the practice of law.

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