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A Jury of Your Peers?

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 9:25AM

Even though we want to believe that justice is blind, as human beings we are sometimes influenced by the way a person looks. Do tattoos bias a jury? Can edgy hairstyles turn people off? Do certain colors imply guilt over other more innocent shades? Will the cut of a person’s suit contribute to his or her verdict? Jurors have a lot of time before the trial begins to size up the parties. Potential jurors watch the parties and their lawyers as they sit at counsel table, talking amongst themselves.

Unfortunately, jurors often decide whether or not they like a party, if they believe the party appears sincere, whether they are really hurt or not, and other extremely important decisions BEFORE the trial begins. I know because I did the same thing when I was called to serve on a jury! After all, it is only human nature to make decisions like that. We all do it every day.   

The words of an experienced prosecutor spoken to me more than 30 years ago still ring true: “You know Rick, you never know what a jury will seize upon as being important.” Many factors contribute to how a jury judges a person’s character. Consider the potential generational span of a jury. In Florida, the only criterion for serving on a jury is a valid driver’s license! While we may be legally entitled to a 'jury of our peers,' most Volusia County juries are made up largely of folks on the far side of 60. As wrong as it is to 'judge a book by its cover,' snap judgments are bound to happen. Societal influences and the human perspective make them unavoidable.

Most people have an opinion regarding tattoos. Some folks find them attractive and interesting. Others see tattoos as repulsive and representative of a lifestyle they cannot begin to understand. Understanding that, we may suggest that our client or a witness wear long sleeves or other clothing to hide tattoos, or change their hair or clothing to something more neutral. We may also suggest that our clients leave expensive jewelry at home before they appear in court. The reason is this: if a juror, or even the judge is offended, intimidated, or impressed by some factor of a person’s appearance, they may lose their objectivity.

I once represented a young woman who was injured in a fall. After the accident, she moved out of state but returned for the trial. We planned to meet outside of the courtroom just before beginning jury selection. At the appointed hour, I walked outside and waited for her. A few minutes later, she came walking down the hall in full regalia. Her hair was uncombed, blouse unbuttoned revealing a plunging neck line, sleeves rolled up displaying tattoos that covered her forearms, and, best of all, a black eye.  Before we entered the courtroom, I escorted her to the ladies room and in no uncertain terms suggested that she button up her shirt and comb her hair. There wasn’t much we could do for the black eye. My client initially protested and said “they (the jury) need to understand…”  I stopped her in mid-sentence and said, “No, you need to understand!” After I explained the potential negative affect her appearance would have on her case, she agreed to the wardrobe makeover. A few minutes later she entered the courtroom as an attractive young woman, with a black eye. We selected a jury, and the following day settled her case for $40,000. Before that the offer had been zero. Her good appearance made all the difference in the world.

The subject matter of tattoos and other forms of self expression are protected by the First Amendment as forms of free speech. And while both the plaintiff and the defendant have the right to express themselves, there is nothing in the system that protects them from being judged, especially in court. When I was a young man, I proudly wore my shoulder length hair in a ponytail as an expression of who I was and a rejection of authority. Well, there is a time and place for everything, and sometimes the time, place and circumstances dictate that it is better to restrain our words and actions than risk self-inflicted harm.   

AsDaytona Beach Attorneys with more than 60 years of combined legal experience, Seitz & Tresher offers the professional staff, skills and resources to successfully research, investigate, negotiate and litigate your case to a successful conclusion. We consider all of the factors that may affect your case. Call us for a free consultation.

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