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“Glasses can’t hide neck tattoos”

Friday, March 30, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

It’s been more than a year since we first wrote about the “nerd defense”. Essentially, this is the practice of sticking eyeglasses on your allegedly dangerous defendant to communicate their innocence to members of the jury. But now, the Washington Post has finally picked up the practice and we thought we’d mention it again.

Here’s how the Post describes the evolving use of the “nerd defense”.

“Attorneys say inmates trade them before hearings, while friends and family sometimes deliver them during jailhouse visits. Some lawyers even supply them themselves.

They often escape notice — as was the case with another murder defendant who wore glasses with thick, black frames during a summer murder trial. Convicted of first-degree murder in August, his glasses never came up in court.

But the eyewear sported during the trial of Carter and his friends, which began its fifth week in D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday, has attracted attention. Court observers say prosecutors seized an opportunity to suggest to jurors that the defendants were dishonest in misrepresenting their appearance.”

Some would say this is simply another example of defendants cleaning up prior to court appearances–they come in dressed in suits and with haircuts–why not eyeglasses? Others say it is going too far–like the furor over the court order to pay for makeup to cover a defendant’s racist face and neck tattoos in Florida.

But there is a flaw in the strategy that is pretty odd to overlook.  The entire premise of the ‘nerd defense’ is based on a distortion of the original research (cited below). The research suggests that jurors perceive the glasses-wearer as being smarter and less threatening, but it isn’t likely to have a significant affect on the verdict.  When we initially blogged about the study, it was this misunderstanding that we found most interesting.

“Our line of research suggests that the presence of eyeglasses on a defendant may significantly affect verdict outcome. However, this effect is likely to be small and indirect. In both scenarios, the presence of eyeglasses increased ratings of defendants’ intelligence. For the violent crime scenario, this increase was associated with less guilty verdicts. Eyeglasses also decreased ratings of defendants’ as threatening; however, this decrease was not significantly related to verdict. Thus, how intelligent a defendant appeared was a better predictor of verdict outcome than how physically threatening he appeared. Future research should examine if other indicators of intelligence (level of education, vocabulary, etc.) produce the similar effects.” See the full article here.

In other words, the glasses had a small pro-defense effect. No get-out-of-jail-free magic. Yet, trial lore spreads and criminal defense lawyers have defendants in eyewear for court proceedings.

We don’t think jurors are that easily fooled. Instead, we concur with the commenter on the Washington Post article from whom we stole the title of this blog post: “Glasses can’t hide neck tattoos”! [They can’t hide character, either.]

Brown, M. J., Henriquez, E., & Groscup, J. (2008). The effects of eyeglasses and race on juror decisions involving a violent crime. American Journal of Forensic Psychology , 26 (2), 25-43


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