A Pretty Face Bolsters the Defense, Cornell Study Finds


By: Tresa Baldas, New York Law Journal
May 19, 2010

Winning over jurors is tough enough for criminal defendants. Being ugly may make it tougher.

That is the conclusion of a new Cornell University study that found unattractive defendants are 22 percent more likely to be convicted and are likely to receive sentences that average 22 months longer than their better-looking counterparts. The study, “When Emotionality Trumps Reason,” was based on responses from 169 Cornell psychology students.

No surprise, said Jack King, spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noting that defense lawyers have long taken looks into account when trying cases.

“We usually want our clients in a suit, with their hair combed and trying to appear as clean-cut as possible,” Mr. King said. “It bears out what many of us knew in our gut, or just believed, because we think we know human nature.”

James Reams, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, conceded that looks “could have a little bit of impact” in weaker cases. But he said, “This study may say more about the kids at that college than anything else.”

If looks were truly important, Mr. Reams said, “we’d hire nothing but attractive prosecutors and send them up there.”

The study, scheduled to run in an upcoming issue of “Behavioral Sciences and the Law,” was conducted by Justin Gunnell, a Cornell Law School graduate and commercial litigator in New York, and Stephen Ceci, professor of developmental psychology at Cornell.

Based on personality tests, the Cornell students were broken down into two groups of hypothetical jurors: those who reason rationally based on facts, analysis and logic, and those who reason emotionally and may consider such legally irrelevant factors as a defendant’s appearance, race, gender and class. The two groups were then given a case study with a photograph of an actual defendant and his or her general profile. They read real jury instructions and listened to the cases’ closing arguments.

While the two groups convicted attractive defendants at similar rates and were less biased in the face of strong evidence or very serious offenses, the jurors’ reasoning style tended to lead them to divergent conclusions in cases where the evidence was ambiguous and the charged offense somewhat minor, said Mr. Gunnell.

In other words, when a weak case presented itself with an unattractive defendant, the emotional jurors were more likely to convict and to hand down harsher sentences.

Mr. Gunnell said he believes the study could help lawyers fine-tune jury selection techniques. Those with the evidence strongly on their side might want to identify rational jurors. But lawyers relying on the emotional tug of a case might try to screen out those same jurors, he said.

As far as prosecutors are concerned, the rational juror is probably the ideal one, said Mr. Reams. Besides, he added, “How do you define attractive?”