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Dress To Impress: How A Defendant's Clothing Affects Jurors

Do jurors think this man looks guilty because of the way he is dressed and who is surrounding him?

Do jurors think this man looks guilty because of the way he is dressed and who is surrounding him?

The Aurora Theater Shooter was dressed in clean, business casual clothing throughout his trial. I know because I sat through most of it. He was also chained to the floor. There were armed, uniformed officers surrounding him and armed, plainclothes officers mixed into the crowd. It was clear to everyone, including the jury, that the shooter was not going to escape the courtroom and no one was going to hurt the shooter during the trial.

So, how did that presentation affect the jury? Common sense would dictate that a defendant wearing nice clothing is going to look less guilty than a defendant wearing jail-issue clothing. And, a defendant who is surrounded by armed guards is going to look more guilty than one who does not need that level of supervision. But, is that accurate?

The honest answer is, I'm not completely sure. It seems like an important area of legal defense, but there is surprisingly little research on the topic. I did, however, run across an article from 1978 that had surprising results.

In this old study, researchers had college students act as jurors in a simulated courtroom. In some conditions, the defendants (played by unfortunate grad students) were dressed in nice clothing and in other conditions, the defendants were dressed in jail scrubs. The researchers also altered whether or not the defendants were guarded by armed officers, regardless of what they were wearing. 

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2X2 Design

The researchers varied what type of clothing defendants wore and whether or not they were guarded.

Common sense would dictate that jurors would be most biased against defendants who wore jail clothing and were surrounded by armed guards. After all, they would seem to be the most dangerous. Those unguarded defendants wearing nice clothing should be looked at as the most favorable in the eyes of the jury.

So, what actually happened? Well, the unguarded, nicely dressed defendants did elicit a positive bias from jurors. But, so did the defendants who were dressed in jail clothing with armed guards. Weird, right?

Even weirder is that defendants who were dressed nicely but surrounded by armed guards (like the theater shooter) elicited the most negative bias from jurors. Jurors also had negative feelings toward defendants in jail clothing who were unguarded.

The researchers suggested that jurors felt some level of sympathy toward defendants who were stuck in jail, wearing uncomfortable and ugly clothing, and surrounded by armed guards. Also, jurors were surprised by a defendant who was dressed nicely but was so dangerous that armed guards needed to surround him/her--that person must be guilty, in the eyes of the jury.

In the case of the theater shooter, there was overwhelming evidence against him and a not guilty verdict was extremely unlikely, regardless of what he wore. However, this was also a death penalty case and his attorneys worked hard to impress upon the jury that death would be an unjust ending to the case. It makes me wonder how his clothing affected jurors decisions--ultimately, two of them decided they could not sentence him to death and he is now serving multiple sentences of life in prison without parole.

Remember, this study is from 1978, but it does raise some interesting questions. Dressing to impress a jury might not always mean dressing as nicely as possible.

reference:

Fontaine, G., and Kiger, R. (1978). The Effects of Defendant Dress and Supervision on Judgments of Simulated Jurors: An Exploratory Study. Law and Human Behavior, 2(1), 63-71.