Tuesday, March 1, 2011

EXTRA: It’s all about appearances

During a criminal trial, prosecutors are going to toss out so many factual tidbits meant to make the defendant look like so much of a monster that the jury will feel it is their obligation to reach a “guilty” verdict.

YANG: With "jailhouse" hair?
Which is why defense attorneys often go to great lengths to make their client look like someone so unlike the person being described by prosecutors that perhaps the jury will think it is a case of mistaken identity – NO way that guy/girl could have done those heinous acts!

I GOT A first-hand reminder of such tactics during a trial I recently covered in Will County Circuit Court. The defendant, a 23-year-old barely-more-than-a-kid himself who faced aggravated DUI charges for an auto accident that killed a 5-year-old boy, was dressed up every day in a dark grey with blue pinstripe suit and high-collared dress shirts that covered up as much as possible the tattoos he had on his neck.

That outfit was complimented with a different tie every day of the two-week-long legal proceedings of varied colors and patterns that the jokes among the trial observers was that the defense attorney (who himself is a sharp dresser) was getting a chance to show off his whole collection of $200 ties.

Of course, the defendant had to dress in the courtroom, since he was being held at the county jail and was literally brought to the courthouse each day in his prison “blues” (if this were Cook County, it would be khaki) in chains.

But letting the jury see the defendant in chains and jailhouse garb would have been inappropriate. It would have created a prejudicial image against a man who is to be presumed innocent unless prosecutors can prove otherwise.

BUT IT SEEMS there are limits as to how far the courts will go to let a criminal defendant clean him/herself up to try to look like a “typical” human being.

The Chicago Tribune reported about the case of Marni Yang, who is on trial in Lake County Circuit Court. Prosecutors say she shot and killed a pregnant woman who was seeing the man whom she thought was her boyfriend – former Chicago Bears cornerback/safety Shaun Gayle.

According to the Tribune account, Yang on Monday showed up in court in a blue blouse and grey slacks with her hair worn on a pony-tail.

Prosecutors think they are ready to pick a jury of Yang’s “peers” to decide her legal fate. Yang’s attorneys wanted a day’s delay.

FOR THEY WANTED her to have her hair done properly – maybe something more reminiscent of her days as an aspiring fashion model. I guess jailhouse life in Waukegan is just so unconducive to maintaining style and fashion.

But a judge wouldn’t allow the delay. Which now has attorneys talking about legal appeal.

This case could wind up centering around whether or not prosecutors were unfair in allowing her to be seen in a courthouse setting (about as un-fashionable a place as one will ever see) with “jailhouse hair.”

Don’t laugh.

IT MAY SOUND trivial. But it can be these trivial points upon which a court case can collapse. As though a dead woman and an unborn baby are of less importance than what color her hair was at the time of trial.

Now I have covered court proceedings off-and-on for some two decades. I often have wondered just how significant all this staging of a defendant’s appearance truly was. Does it come across as too phony – as in, the jury sees through the act and realizes this person never dressed like that before in his life? Does it actually sway? I have never served on a jury, so I can’t say first-hand.

CONNER: Tattoo cover-up?
All I know is that in the most-recent trial I covered, the defendant, Cecil Conner, Jr., wore that sharp suit (that was starting to get rumpled from two week’s worth of daily wear) with a peach-colored paisley tie the day he took the witness stand on his own behalf, and wore a blue-ish, purple tie with orange trim on the trial’s final day.

Somehow, I don’t think it softened the blow for him when the judge twice said the word “guilty” in announcing his verdict to the courtroom, with sentencing scheduled in May.



Anonymous said...

What do you think about the fact that of the 12 jurors, nine of them are men? Will that be good for her defense, or bad?

Unknown said...

I love that term jailhouse hair, I think it will look great on my blue pinstripe suit.