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Simple Jury Persuasion: When beautiful is not so good

Friday, November 2, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Bond girls. Dangerous and sexual. They always get their man (one way… and often another). And then they often try to kill him. Therein lies an intuitive secret of how we judge others. Or, at least, how we judge women. In most instances, “what is beautiful is good”. But, finally, thanks to the persistent efforts of social scientists, we can finally tell you about a time when what is beautiful is more likely to be found guilty. You may not be surprised at this finding.

In domestic violence cases where abused women kill the abuser and they are beautiful–they are more likely to be found criminally responsible. Conversely, if the woman defendant is deemed relatively unattractive, the jury is more likely to view her sympathetically. The research participants read one of two descriptions of the female defendant:

“María is a 36-year-old housewife with two children (6 and 3 years old) who has been married for 10 years. During the trial, María is described as wearing sunglasses that hide her face, poor personal appearance and dress, and is timid in answering to the judge’s or lawyer’s questions.” Her appearance was further described as follows: “María is an unattractive woman with thin lips, stern and jarring facial features, dark bundled hair and is neither slender nor elegant in appearance.”

“María is a financial consultant of a leading company; she has no children, and has been married for ten years. During the trial, María is described as a well-dressed fashion conscious woman, calm and resolute in her interactions with the judge and lawyers.” Her appearance was further described as follows: “María is an attractive woman with thick lips, smooth harmonious facial features, straight blonde hair and a slender and elegant appearance.”

Beautiful María was blamed more for murdering her abuser than was not-beautiful María. The researchers explain that the beautiful María was seen as having more control in the situation than did the not-beautiful María. With beauty comes an assumption of control and self-determination. [In these vignettes, though, there is also an overlay of perceived affluence and empowerment. Unattractive Maria is described as poor, stressed, desperate, and vulnerable. Her beautiful alter-ego is independent, affluent, and attractive. It isn’t easy to know what part of these profiles carried the most impact.]

In other words, the beautiful woman may be seen as atypical of battered women and as therefore less readily viewed as a victim. Since she did not walk away and instead killed her abuser, she is seen as more intentional as opposed to reactive to the situation and thus is blamed more for the murder.

Perhaps also not surprising is the reality that those who were higher in self-ratings of traditional sexism (aka machismo) believed the beautiful women defendant had more situational control than did those who were less attractive. Finally, these were not undergraduate student research subjects. Instead, they were 169 Spanish police officers (153 men and 16 women) ranging in age from 21 years to 60 years.

It’s a good reminder that even those charged with protecting the vulnerable carry stereotypes about “who” is a battered woman that do not necessarily match up with what is real and true. It’s also a good reminder of the importance of always considering your client’s visual identity even when you don’t think appearance is salient. This is one situation where you want to address your client’s beauty with the jurors. Generally, beauty is an advantage in terms of the judgment of others. In this situation, it’s a distinct liability.

Raise the flag of awareness that even beautiful women can be victims of domestic violence.

Educate jurors on the reality their beliefs that because she is beautiful she had ample choice to walk away are simply incorrect.

And remain aware yourself of the ingrained tendency we have to place beauty on the negative side of the equation when it comes to domestic violence related homicides.

Herrera, A, Valor-Segura, I, & Expósito, F (2012). Is Miss Sympathy a Credible Defendant Alleging Intimate Partner Violence in a Trial for Murder? The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 4 (2), 179-196

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