It’s your day in court and you’re dressed in your best, looking “sharp as a tack”. Your new slick hairdo and designer suit make for a “social-media-worthy” ensemble – but you’d be forgiven for not wanting to capture the day on Facebook or Instagram.
There’s just one thing letting you down: your nerves. The courtroom contains a loud, almost palpable, silence and you wonder if that sea of glowering faces in front of you can perhaps hear your chastising internal monologue or your chattering teeth.
Whatever the alleged offence, and whatever your plea, the courtroom can be a daunting, lonely place. And you know you only have one chance to make the right impression, and get the right result.
They say “evil never wins”, but, in reality, we know that not everyone achieves a ‘just’ outcome in the criminal ‘justice’ system.
So, what does the research say about the impact of how you come across in court? And, apart from all the preparation you and your lawyer (if you’re legally represented) have done in the lead-up to the big day, what can you do to maximise your chances of a good result?
Although it may not seem very fair or just, the way you present yourself can make a difference to a ‘fact-finder’ – such as a magistrate in the local or children’s court, or a jury in the district or supreme court.
In fact, a number of studies have found a strong correlation between a defendant’s appearance and presentation, and the perception of his or her guilt or innocence.
Conversely, defendant’s with good looks and who are seemingly wealthy tend to bypass a guilty verdict more frequently.
High profile cases
A good legal team and even fame or notoriety can also assist your case.
Defendants such as O.J. Simpson and Oscar Pistorius achieved outcomes which many saw as unfairly favourable, which the research might suggest was partly due to their looks, success, and charisma.
Critics have argued that the judge leading Pistorius’ infamous domestic murder case, was “too lenient” on the killer, on the basis of his public persona and achievements.
Pistorius, a former Olympic gold medallist, initially received a six-year sentence from judge Thokozile Masipa, but later went on to receive a fifteen-year sentence, following an appeal.
Former American footballer, O.J. Simpson, had fans chanting, “Free O.J.” and “Save the juice” whilst underdoing trial for his wife’s suspicious death. Although Simpson was never convicted for her murder, the assumption of his innocence by a substantial portion of the public may be seen as telling, in and of itself.
Even against a heavy-handed verdict, judges can be taken by the way a person presents themselves. For instance, while sentencing one of the world’s worst serial killers Ted Bundy to death, judge Edward Cowart famously remarked:
“Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom.
“You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself.”
Nature versus nurture
Some of the research suggests that we perceive well-presented people as less likely to be guilty because of neurobiologically hardwired processes known as “heuristics”.
Heuristics are mental shortcuts which make it easier to process external information. They are believed to be a deeply ingrained survival technique, one which our caveperson ancestors would have had to rely on to make quick decisions about people and situations, to determine whether or not they were safe or a threat.
Because heuristics are used subconsciously, they are experienced as a gut feeling, rather than a string of rational thoughts and, as such, often lack logic. They can lead to errors in perception known as “cognitive biases”, causing us to make poor judgements and decisions.
On the nurture side of the debate, others have argued that stereotyping behaviour in a courtroom is a byproduct of the media, in which criminals tend to be portrayed as scoundrels and hoodlums.
Whatever the case may be, many criminal defence lawyers are acutely aware of these biases, and will take steps to ensure their clients are presented in the best possible light – both in terms of the way they dress and how they act inside the courtroom.
Making a good impression
We may never be able to change the prejudices people seem to have, whether these biases are innate, organic or a combination of both.
However, we can certainly ensure we are well-presented inside the courtroom – looking our best and ensuring we act appropriately.
Looking the part means wearing conservative clothing such as a suit – as either a man or woman – and an overall tidy, well-kept appearance.
Acting the part involves remaining calm and collected, but not disinterested; alert and observant, but not overbearing or arrogant; respectful and deferent, but not to the point of appearing excessively or unnaturally so.
Looking and acting the part can assist your lawyer to do what he or she does best – persuade the court to grant you the best possible outcome in the circumstances. Or if you’re representing yourself in court, it can demonstrate respect and humility.