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How looks can influence courtroom bias

Proud Boy John Kinsman looked drastically different during a recent courtroom appearance.

A handcuffed man appears in court.
What a defendant looks like can make a huge difference in the courtroom.
Getty Images

When John Kinsman of the Proud Boys, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, appeared in court for a hearing last week, he looked like an entirely different man. (The Proud Boys deny SPLC’s hate group designation and question the legitimacy of the organization.) During a previous court appearance, on October 19, Kinsman had a scraggly beard, long hair, and wore a T-shirt and overalls. Less than a week later, he was unrecognizable in court in a suit, black-rimmed glasses, short slick hair, and a clean-shaven face.

The striking makeover is likely not a coincidence, but speaks to an understanding by Kinsman’s legal team that appearance is currency in the nation’s courtrooms. The likelihood of conviction and the length of a criminal sentence has been linked to how attractive, modest, or even light-complected defendants look.

Amber Baylor, associate professor of law at the Texas A&M University School of Law, discussed earlier this year how it’s both “standard” and “good practice” for defense attorneys to spruce up their clients before a court appearance. She also runs the criminal defense clinic at Texas A&M’s law school.

“It’s very common to ask your client to get a haircut if they want to, because you think it might help them in their case,” Baylor told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in March. “Tell them how they may want to sit ... what direction they want to look in, whether or not they want to trim their beard.”

Looking a certain way can alter perceptions about defendants. Kinsman, for instance, belongs to the Proud Boys, an organization that Facebook recently banned; regarding the ban, a spokeswoman for the social media company said in a statement, “Our team continues to study trends in organized hate and hate speech and works with partners to better understand hate organizations as they evolve.” And last year, Jason Kessler, who previously attended Proud Boys meetings, helped to organize the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in which counter protester Heather Heyer was killed. (The Proud Boys deny any involvement with the rally and further deny that Kessler was ever a member of the group.)

Kinsman was in court stemming from charges related to a fight with Antifa protesters in New York City on Oct. 12. His charges included attempted assault, riot, and criminal possession of a weapon.

But the Kinsman in court last week (he’s due back December 6) didn’t resemble the public’s general perception of a violent person. His suit covered up his arm tattoos and his shorter hair, shaven face, and glasses made him look socioeconomically privileged.

Although people who harbor far-right views transcend class and educational lines, a perception persists that they are “hillbillies.” And the rise of Trump and the growing racial animus linked to his presidency was famously blamed on the “economic anxiety” of his supporters. (Most Trump voters weren’t poor, though.)

Kinsman’s suaver look for his court hearing signals that his defense team potentially gave him a makeover to shoot down the idea that he espouses such views. As it is, the Proud Boys deny that they’re really white supremacists, despite their ties to the far right; the fact that Kinsman is married to a black woman has repeatedly come up on social media and in the press. Proud Boys supporters have used a picture of the couple to shoot down accusations of racism. Kinsman’s black wife, biracial kids, and clean-shaven face could all serve to distract from allegations that he’s a dangerous participant of the far right movement, most recently accused of body slamming, punching and stomping on an Antifa member, according to the New York Post.

Kinsman is hardly the first defendant to overhaul his appearance; it’s a common courtroom tactic, particularly in high-profile cases. Jodi Arias, repeatedly portrayed in the press as sexually alluring, appeared in court for the murder of her former boyfriend Travis Alexander with brown hair, glasses, and modest clothing — a complete departure from the blonde-haired and bikini-clad photos of Arias that circulated in the media before the 2013 murder trial, which even Trump weighed in on. The following year, Eric Millerberg, a white supremacist charged with murdering a teen babysitter, got a makeover before appearing in a Utah court. Associated with the racist skinhead movement where members typically shave their heads, Millerberg grew out his hair, shaved his overgrown beard, and got glasses.

But for defendants who aren’t involved in high-profile cases or don’t have the funds for a makeover, there’s no opportunity for a full appearance overhaul. This is especially the case with defendants with prominent tattoos. Some of these individuals wear makeup to cover up their body art, but hiring a professional to do so can get expensive, up to $125 daily. And courts don’t always pay the fees associated with tattoos, even if they may prejudice a jury against a defendant. In March, a Texas man named Joseph Tejeda, charged with capital murder, asked the 105th District Court to help him remove or cover up his face tattoos. There have been several other cases in which tattoo removal or cover-up for defendants similarly became an issue. The requests demonstrate the significance of appearance in a courtroom.

And while some defendants will be able to transform themselves, as Kinsman has done, those without means will be forced to appear in court in ways that may expose them to jury bias and prevent them from getting a fair trial.

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