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The Killer with the Killer Looks — Unattractive Defendants More Likely to face Conviction

by | May 22, 2010 | Uncategorized

My next client with killer looks might not be an actual murderer, but according to a recent study conducted by Cornell University, the jury will be blinded by his or her appearance rather than the facts.

In a study to be published next month, researchers Justin Gunnell and Stephen Ceci opined that attractive defendants are 22% more likely to receive a not guilty verdict, and be punished with a less-severe sentence than their unattractive counterparts. Gunnell and Ceci arrived at their conclusions by showing their research group photos of defendants along with a case file describing the offense, and having the research group listen to the closing arguments and jury instructions of each case.

Gunell and Ceci identified two types of potential jurors: the “emotional” juror who relies on his or her emotions to reason and consider legally irrelevant factors like appearance, race, gender and class. The second type of juror, the “rational” juror, is one who reasons rationally, and processes information based primarily on analysis, logic and facts. Their research demonstrates the “emotional” jurors to be more likely to render harsher verdicts to unattractive defendants and believe that a less attractive defendant seems like the “type of person” who would commit a crime. The “rational” jurors tended to focus much less on how defendants look in reaching a verdict and sentence. Most people use both emotions and rational reason to process information; however one approach or the other is usually predominant in an individual.

While this information is news-worthy, it isn’t exactly earth shattering. Studies have shown time and time again that beauty and an attractive appearance will cause most people to form a favorable impression of someone, absent further information to the contrary. Accordingly, as defense lawyers, we must humanize our clients as much as possible, providing the jury an abundance of information in the hopes that they perceive our clients on trial as decent people (despite whatever their appearance may indicate) and provide each juror enough information to overcome biases based on looks, race and other superficial factors.

I never thought I’d learn anything of note from the movie Basic Instinct, but there’s a parallel to be drawn between Sharon Stone and this study…Just because the defendant has killer looks, doesn’t mean she’s not a killer.

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