Law in Popular Culture

Netflix's '100 Humans' ponders the question: Can good looks keep you out of jail?

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In response to COVID-19, Oklahoma shut done all nonessential business like many other states in the nation. Our governor declared legal services essential, but I don’t always feel that way. Perhaps it’s because the office is barren since the staff is at home. Maybe it’s more to do with the state supreme court order barring the public from all courthouses in each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. No access means no court dates, and no court dates means a new normal.

I’ve been working from the house as much as I can. It’s difficult with a 2-year-old and door-length glass windows on my office entrance, but my wife does a great job of keeping him occupied for the most part. Still, with a shelter-in-place order for Oklahoma City, finding ways to stay occupied seems to be more of a task than the comforting “staycation” I’m sure some imagined.

‘100 Humans’

Because of the extra time at home, my wife and I have become a bit more adventurous with our viewing habits. Whereas we used to settle on something tried and true when getting ready for bed, we’ve started to explore some random streaming offerings. The hope is we’ll surprise ourselves and stumble upon a new series we can invest in.

That wasn’t the case with Netflix’s 100 Humans. The series basic premise goes as follows: Gather up 100 people from diverse backgrounds and have them participate in interactive “experiments” designed to answer questions regarding “age, sex, happiness, and other aspects of being human.” There are three hosts, a “science correspondent” and two “comedians.” Sadly, the comedians aren’t that funny, and the experiments aren’t all that scientific.

We were about to chalk 100 Humans up to a waste of 13 minutes, when lo and behold, the “law in pop culture” gods shined upon me. Just as we were getting ready to switch to a new show, 100 Humans posed a question that is topically relevant to my line of work: Can good looks keep you out of jail?

The short answer is yes. The 100 humans were divided into two groups of 50. Each group was given the same set of facts and the same crime to judge. One group was presented with an attractive defendant, and one group was presented with an unattractive convict. The better-looking defendant always received less prison time (ignore the fact that maybe the group of 50 who viewed the attractive defendant was simply more lenient than the other group.)

Survey says

In the grand scheme of the entire episode, the bit regarding prison sentences and attractiveness was only a small segment. The production team likely didn’t want to belabor the point, as they probably knew they weren’t breaking new ground with their “experiment.” In fact, multiple studies have found that unattractive defendants are more likely to be found guilty than the similarly situated attractive accused.

A Cornell University study went past the aspect of conviction and looked even deeper into how jurors view attractiveness. Let me know if this sounds familiar: The 2010 study found that “unattractive defendants tend to get hit with longer, harsher sentences—on average 22 months longer in prison.”

However, the Cornell researchers looked more into the underlying rationale and found that jurors can either be emotional or rational thinkers. Their study showed that those jurors who reason emotionally tend to take legally irrelevant factors such as “appearance, race, gender and class” into consideration when concluding that a defendant “looks” like a criminal.

Turning an ugly duckling into a swan

Cornell study or not, any trial attorney can tell you from experience that attractiveness counts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at the courthouse, waiting for someone to bring down the venire so we can get the show on the road, only to have a fellow defense attorney stop to chat. Most defense lawyers’ first question will revolve around the crime at issue. Once they know what the charges are, they’ll usually take a look at your client and say one of two things: “Well, at least your client looks normal!” or simply “Good luck.”

Attorneys in the trenches know what the science supports because they’ve seen it with their own eyes. Whether they know the science behind the theories is immaterial; if they’ve tried enough cases, they’ve seen the benefit a “normal”-looking client has over one who’s not quite as “normal” looking.

Consequently, appearance is something I discuss with my clients in detail leading up to trial. Dressing well, grooming oneself and practicing proper hygiene are only parts of the puzzle, though. When a client hires me on a difficult case and we start on what looks to be a long, tough road of litigation, I warn them about the negative energy they’re going to experience. I ask them to turn that into something positive. I often suggest some form of exercising.

You can use the negative emotional energy as fuel if you channel it in the right direction. Start running. Start lifting weights. Start yoga. Start anything that will give you an outlet for the negativity you are going to encounter, and try to gain something from it. If nothing else, the exercise will provide you a temporary escape from your thoughts of dread and despair. On top of that, it might even help your defense.

I tell all my clients the same thing: Jurors aren’t going to care about you if you don’t look like you care about yourself.

Addressing the issue in voir dire

Because when it’s all said and done, if we have to go to jury trial, that jury is ultimately judging my client—not me. When I first started practicing, I thought it was the other way around. I thought if the jury liked me enough, I could use that to overcome any of my client’s perceived faults. I was wrong.

I learned early on it isn’t so much about whether the jury likes the attorney as much as whether they like the defendant. Sure, presenting yourself as a well-put-together advocate with the confidence, competence and correct amount of compassion can definitely help your chances of success; however, a criminal jury isn’t giving you a report card at the end of the trial. They are either finding your client guilty or not, and the way the client appears to them plays a significant role in that outcome.

I try and handle this head-on. Often, I’ll ask the jury outright what they think of my client. I’ll ask them, simply based on appearances, “How would you describe my client sitting right there?” The answers can be very telling.

It’s unlikely that you will come across a potential juror who will say outright that your client looks guilty, but I’ve had some more blunt individuals get pretty close. Even if the members of the venire won’t tell you exactly how they view your client, they’ll give you enough to develop a dialogue that humanizes the defendant. And who knows? You might get an answer that helps excuse a potential juror you otherwise would have kept based on everything else you observed.

Looks can be deceiving, after all.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

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