Put a defendant on the stand in handcuffs and prison orange, and a defense attorney is going to have an uphill battle. But even when defendants appear in civilian attire, their wardrobe can play a decisive role in the jury's perception, and this is even truer for women. Yet perhaps the strangest thing about this phenomenon is not the effect of a shade of lipstick or a few inches of fabric, but how much defendants' clothes have changed in the last 40 years.
When she was tried for bank robbery in 1976, Patty Hearst wore clothing that was just a little too big for her. Hearst's lawyers likely used this tactic in an attempt to replace the famous image of Patty the outlaw—jaw set, gaze steely, a submachine gun in her hands—with a softer one: Patty the victim. Patty the little girl.
But some images are too indelible to alter once they have been branded onto the public's mind, and Patty Hearst went to prison for 22 months. Perhaps it was simply easier to believe that Patty Hearst had adopted a criminal lifestyle by choice: Patty the outlaw was not just frightening, but glamorous.
When 17-year-old Amy Fisher went to trial for shooting the wife of her adult lover Joey Buttafuoco, the tabloid media latched on to what quickly became known as the case of the "Long Island Lolita." Had Amy been coerced into violence by an older man, or was she, as Mademoiselle wondered, "an infatuated, hallucinating spoiled brat?"
Some legal consultants argued that Fisher's lawyers hurt their case by outfitting her in adult-looking suits. It wasn't enough to dress in conservative, dark colors, as Amy had: she had to look not just like an innocent woman, but like a child.
"I would have put her in a French schoolgirl dress with a big collar, a dark color, ribbon in her hair, no make-up," attorney Harry Munsinger said, when the Los Angeles Times reached him for comment. "Make her look as young as possible."
Defense attorneys who paid attention to the Amy Fisher case likely learned something from its aftermath: if you want a jury to seriously consider your client's innocence, make her look as youthful as you can.When Pauline Zile was tried for the murder of her daughter Christina, Zile's lawyers dressed their 24-year-old client so that she appeared to be little more than a child herself. On the first day of jury selection, Zile wore a gingham skirt and ballerina slippers; throughout her trial she appeared in what the Broward County Sun-Sentinel described as "a parade of pastel dresses and skirt sets." Because Zile's attorneys never put her on the stand, jurors searching for a direct understanding of her character had nothing to go on but her appearance.
"Pauline Zile was as much a victim as Christina," Zile's attorney, Ellis Rubin, told the jury. Rubin's defense—and the clothes Zile wore to corroborate it—wasn't enough to acquit his client, but it was enough to save her from the death penalty. Pauline Zile is currently serving a life sentence.
For some women, the baby-doll look was more effective. When she went to trial for the crime that launched a thousand dirty limericks, Lorena Bobbitt rarely appeared without a gold crucifix around her neck. Clothed in delicate, high-necked blouses, she was soft-spoken and wide-eyed, and looked far younger than her 23 years.
Her appearance made it all but impossible to ignore the allegations of her husband's abuse: Bobbitt seemed less like a battered wife than a vulnerable child who had been victimized by a domineering man. Ultimately, the sensational nature of the crime was matched only by the shock of the verdict: Lorena Bobbitt was acquitted of all charges.
Pamela Smart was 22 years old, and six days shy of her first wedding anniversary, when she came home on a warm night in the spring of 1990 to find her husband murdered. Almost immediately, the press saw something suspicious in the grieving widow: she just didn't appear grief-stricken enough. Instead, it seemed to them that she took a little too much pleasure in appearing before the camera. "She's always dressed beautifully, [with] full-on makeup," local reporter Bill Spencer said at the time.
No matter how demurely Smart dressed during her trial—in high-necked blouses and conservative skirt suits that would not have looked out of place in a church pew—the fact that she had put effort into her appearance was enough to instill suspicion. "She always looked really good," New Hampshire journalist Tami Pyle says in the 2014 HBO documentary Captivated, which chronicles the case. "She always had a bow in her hair. That was sort of her trademark."
This care came to be seen as duplicitous. As Captivated chronicles, at one point she suggested that a film crew shoot footage of her opening her freezer to inspect her wedding cake. Smart seemed guilty because she seemed to be too conscious of the cameras surrounding her, trying too hard to play the role of the demure housewife, the grieving widow, the innocent young woman. Pamela Smart was found guilty after a 14-day trial, and received a life sentence.
The shift away from baby-doll courtroom fashion began in the mid-'90s, perhaps because it had become just a little too popular. It was hard not to notice a pattern: the worse the crime a defendant was accused of, the more frills and ribbons she'd wear. The childlike look became less a distraction from alleged past crimes than a sign that something truly awful had taken place. If defendants like Pamela Smart were trying so hard to look innocent, viewers began wondering, then what exactly did they have to hide?
The death knell for the little-girl attire might have arrived with Canada's own trial of the century. In the summer of 1995, as American viewers remained fixated on the O.J. Simpson case, Paul Bernardo went to trial in Toronto for the murders of two area teenagers who he had also kidnapped, confined in his home, and repeatedly raped. As heinous as his crimes were, Bernardo was eventually overshadowed by his ex-wife, Karla Homolka. Holmolka had aided her husband in both holding his victims captive and sexually assaulting them, but she had worked out a generous plea deal with the prosecution.
The media crews that spent a long, searing summer camped out around the Toronto Superior Court of Justice clamored for a shot, however brief, of Homolka entering or exiting the building on the days she delivered testimony. She said nothing to the press, but a few moments were enough to capture her Barbie-doll-blond hair and impassive half-smile. In one widely circulated photograph, she wore a half-ponytail tied with a fussy floral scrunchie reminiscent of the sprays of baby's breath that had framed her face on her picture-perfect wedding day.
Karla Homolka's vanity—her insistence on having a designer wedding gown, her Barbie doll look, her enthusiastic posing for her husband's home movies, and the fact that she had blow dried her hair as the body of one of his victims lay upstairs—was pressed into service as proof that the closest she could come to being good was looking good. The more painstaking the facade, the public decided, the more she had to be hiding. By the late '90s, veteran true crime audiences had good reason to suspect that the girl with the pretty little bow in her hair would always be revealed as the villain.
CASEY ANTHONY and JODIE ARIAS
Today, attorneys who defend women embroiled in notorious cases tend to opt for simplicity. When Casey Anthony went to trial for the first-degree murder of her two-year-old daughter, her lawyers outfitted her in plain, subdued sweaters and button-down shirts. Occupying the center of a similarly sensational trial, the once-blonde Jodi Arias turned up with stick-straight brown hair, glasses, and no make-up. Both women adopted what seems to be the most prominent defense strategy of our decade: don't let your client look pretty or feminine, even if you can make her look like a pretty little girl. Don't try to balance the horror of what she is accused of with an image of exaggerated innocence. Let her be plain, unremarkable, and nondescript. Do your best to make the jury forget her, and focus only on the evidence at hand.
It's unclear whether this tactic is any more effective than the ones defense attorneys relied on twenty years ago. What is clear is that whether they are on the side of the defense or the prosecution, women can't avoid having their appearances scrutinized in the courtroom for as long as they are scrutinized elsewhere.
Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, prosecutor Marcia Clark still has to justify not the jury's acquittal, but her perm. "It was wash-and-wear hair!" she said in a recent interview. "It was easy. I had two boys in diapers and I didn't want to be bothered." But for women at the center of media spectacles, no decision—particularly those they make about their appearances—can ever be quite so simple.
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