One of the more interesting visuals in any criminal trial is how the defendant presents himself. As a prosecutor, I saw countless defense makeovers: brutish thugs who walked into the courtroom almost unrecognizable in pressed khakis, a neat haircut, and fake glasses plucked from a bin in their lawyer’s office. But the most striking makeovers often occur when a beautiful young woman is on trial. Then, the switcheroo is usually a makeunder. Jodi Arias is the most recent case in point, going from hottie to ho-hum faster than you can say, “Arizona has the death penalty.” But I think her deliberate frump is a bad strategy.
Now in her thirty-ninth day of trial, Arias is charged with brutally killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, on June 4, 2008. According to the prosecution, Arias went to Alexander’s house, had sex with him, took naked photos of them together, then shot him in the face, slit his throat, and stabbed him twenty-seven times. Arias has offered many stories—first, she wasn’t there; second, she was there but masked intruders murdered him—and now admits she killed Alexander, but claims it was self-defense.
Arias currently appears to be a different woman than the one who walked out of Alexander’s home that June day. Back then, she was a buxom blonde with long platinum hair, kohl-lined eyes, and lips glossed to the outer limits of poutiness. She wore T-shirts a few sizes too small, emphasizing her Barbie-like figure. She easily could have played the femme fatale in any noir novel.
Today, Arias’s hair is dull brown, with wispy bangs covering her forehead. A little-girl side ponytail occasionally clamps a section back. Sitting at the defense table, she wears modest button-up blouses in sweet blues and innocent whites. Brown plastic glasses dominate her makeup-less face. She looks like a shy, frumpy librarian.
Arias and her defense team clearly think the church-mouse look will help her chances with the jury. Are they right? Depends which statistics you read.
A Cornell study
found that “unattractive” defendants were twenty-two percent more likely to be convicted at trial than those deemed “attractive.” Moreover, unattractive criminals served harsher sentences—roughly twenty months longer than their cute counterparts. Bring out the lip-gloss, ladies.
On the other hand, a University of Granada study found that beautiful women were more likely to be found guilty of murdering their husbands than plainer ones. According to the Daily Mail
, “in the case of a woman claiming self-defense in the killing of an abusive husband, police officers were more likely to regard as innocent defendants who were described as unattractive. The findings also showed that women perceived as more independent and in charge of their lives were also more likely to be seen as guilty of murder.” Hmm, ladies, maybe you should put away that compact and meekly gaze at your hands.
So what’s a pretty defendant to do?
I think it depends on how strong the case is. If the prosecution is weak, a bombshell might benefit from playing down her looks and reducing the risk of resentment from female jurors. In Jodi Arias’s case, however, the government’s evidence is strong. She’s lied so many times, people are highly skeptical of her story now. In my opinion, she simply cannot be acquitted at trial. However, she could avoid the electric chair if she got just one juror to take her side. Since verdicts need to be unanimous, a single holdout could hang the whole case—and save her from hanging. For that reason, Arias’s better strategy might have been to come to court in full vixen mode and hope to make one of the jurors fall in love with her.
Of course, we all wish justice was blind. But since jurors don’t wear blindfolds, female defendants are wise to consider not only the best lawyer, but just the right shade of lip-gloss.
Allison Leotta was a federal prosecutor for twelve years, specializing in sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against children. She is now the acclaimed author of three legal thrillers: Law of Attraction, Discretion (named one of the Top 10 books of 2012 by Strand Magazine), and Speak of the Devil (coming this August). She’s an award-winning blogger and graduate of Harvard Law School.