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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trying For That Innocent Look Defendants Should Look Good, Lawyers Say, Even If They’re Not

On trial for murder? Wear a sweater, preferably blue.

Accused of selling sex? Look plain, trim the hair and steer clear of makeup or short skirts.

In court for dealing drugs? Lose the flashy suit and try khakis and a long-sleeved, button-up shirt instead.

Shave. Hide tattoos. Cover up big muscles. Look clean, be polite.

It could mean the difference between liberty or lockup.

Defense attorneys in both Spokane and North Idaho admit polishing their clients’ image for court is an important tactic in every case.

From convicted killer Kevin Boot’s cableknit sweater to Idaho death row inmate Donald Paradis’ last-ditch haircut, courtroom appearances are a carefully calculated element of criminal trials.

“It’s critical that a jury likes the defendant,” said Wendy Pluta, a Los Angeles-based jury consultant.

“And sometimes that means they have to approve of his appearance, right down to the length of his fingernails.”

Pluta, a psychologist who charges attorneys $115 an hour for advice on defendants’ appearance, urges lawyers not to underestimate the importance of such details.

“Make the accused rapist look conservative and shy, clean up the drunken driver, give the pimp the boy-next-door look,” Pluta said. “If it puts the jury at ease, makes them think the guy can’t be so bad, you’ve scored a huge point.”

Most Spokane and North Idaho defendants don’t have the money to hire image consultants like Pluta, but their lawyers rely on instincts and common sense when deciding what their clients will look like in court.

Most stick to a basic approach: clean and neat. Tamed hair and well-groomed beards on men are also important.

A defendant’s comfort, however, can be critical as well. The jury will notice a client squirming in clothes he’s never worn before, said Jim Sheehan, a veteran Spokane public defender.

“If a client doesn’t own a dress shirt, you don’t want to put him in a Hickey-Freeman suit,” he said. “The jurors will know you’re bluffing.”

But some defendants don’t listen to their attorneys’ advice, as longtime defense lawyer Richard Cease knows.

He recalled a client years ago who police said was a pimp. Cease reminded the man, a flashy dresser by nature, to “look conservative” for jurors. The man promised he would.

“But on the morning of the trial, he came in with high-heeled orange shoes and a huge hat with a feather in it,” said Cease, who still cringes at the memory.

The outcome of the case?

“I’d rather not say,” he said.

Years earlier, in 1971, Cease defended a transient accused of swinging an ax into another man’s neck. The client was homeless, dirty and without appropriate clothes.

Cease scraped up a white shirt and tan pants, cleaned up his client and pulled off a not-guilty verdict when jurors bought his self-defense claim.

“He was an ex-Marine, he did his fair share of drinking and he didn’t look like someone a jury would sympathize with,” Cease said of the man. “But we had him looking real good.”

Some of the most effective makeovers happen when a defendant is kept in jail until trial. While behind bars, the suspects are off drugs, eat three meals a day and get plenty of rest, said Superior Court Judge Robert Austin. “You can’t help but notice a difference when they come into court,” he said.

Take the 1994 case of Riverfront Park killer Todd Neighbors. The 24-year-old Spokane man shaved a scruffy beard, tidied his hair and donned a simple polo shirt for most of his trial, making him look more like a golf caddie than a knife-wielding murderer.

Stephanie Pasicznyk, who smothered her infant son for attention in 1994, wore a blue-and-white rayon dress to court and smoothed her auburn hair with a soft white bow. The effect: loving, responsible young mom.

Nineteen-year-old Tobias Stackhouse fashioned his stringy, greasy hair into a short, neat, feathered style for his murder trial earlier this year. The new look, coupled with a plaid, button-down shirt and pressed blue pants, resembled that of a college fraternity president.

The appearance alterations don’t always pay off, though. All three were convicted.

“In the end, evidence will usually outweigh the jury’s impression of how a client looks,” said Miami court consultant Amy Singer. “But why take chances? If it’s a close call, you need every edge you can get.”

Some experts have developed “formulas” for courtroom appearances.

In his book “Psychological Strategies and Trial Techniques,” Donald Vinson steers lawyers away from brown, plaid and pinstripe suits, which he said can offend jurors.

Stick with blues and grays, which promote trust, Vinson writes. Make sure a defendant has a manicure.

Based on their impressions, jurors will reach a conclusion, even if it’s irrational, Vinson said.

“They’ll say she’s too attractive to be behind bars, or he’s too ugly to be out on the street,” he writes.

Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich thinks such analyzing can be overdone, and potentially harmful if the jury sees through it. He advises clients simply to look nice but be themselves.

“The ultimate thing is credibility,” Oreskovich said. “If a jury thinks you’re hiding something or presenting something in a way it isn’t, they’ll catch on. They’ll get you for it.”

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