Picture the scene: you are in a bar, having a quiet drink. Three young men, straight from a business meeting, all well-presented and sharp-suited, are also enjoying a well-deserved tipple. A group of young women join them. The women have already had a few glasses, and are all wearing their Friday night going-out outfits – short skirts, high heels, low-cut tops. What would your initial impression be?
Now imagine you are not in a bar but in a courtroom. You are on the jury of a man accused of sexual assault. The defendant is about 35, wearing an immaculate, well-cut suit, shiny shoes and is well-groomed. The complainant is 18, blonde, heavily made-up, and wears a low-cut top, leopard print mini skirt, and towering stilettos. What would your initial impression be?
Whilst most people would like to think that jurors do not take physical appearance into account when making their decisions, unfortunately this is not always the case. A study undertaken by Bath Spa university in 2007 drew the conclusion that “jurors were less likely to find attractive defendants guilty and were more likely to find less attractive defendants guilty on the scale used. “
Evidence, it seems, can sometimes take second place to the impression formed of a defendant by a juror.
Returning to our scenario, it has been proven that what defendants and complainants wear in court can have an effect on juries’ decisions. In the US, there is an entire industry built around “jury consultants” who advise people what to wear at trial in order to give themselves the best possible chance of victory.
The general advice seems to be to wear what you would to a business meeting. Hence our leopard-print clad complainant’s choice of attire might not cut the mustard. There have been many stories, both factual and anecdotal, of both judges and juries deeming a “provocatively” clothed woman to have been “asking for it” in sexual assault trials.
We have come across the prejudice given to those not seeming to conform to our ideals in our work as private investigators. Working with defence teams, defendants and their friends and families, we regularly witness criticism of complainants’ dress sense. Only this week, we heard a relative of a man accused of sexual abuse argue that it was up to women to dress in a sensible fashion so as not to provoke men.
Human nature perhaps decrees that we make judgments based on personal appearance. On a date, at work, in an interview, we all make initial impressions of strangers, both positive and negative. Given time, our opinions may change.
But when that impression can influence the outcome of a trial, the situation suddenly becomes far more serious.
The figure of Justice, atop many a court building, is often depicted wearing a blindfold. And there is a very good reason for that. Justice should be meted out according only to the evidence presented. Justice should be blind to appearance, race, colour, religion, wealth and status.
We are firm believers in letting the evidence speak for itself. That is the basis of all our work – we deal in facts, not personal opinion. And judges and juries should ignore judging by appearance and do the same.