Beautiful virtue? Ugly sin?

Ada Brown, a Community Voices columnist for the Dallas Morning News is a former prosecutor and criminal court judge here in Dallas County. She makes an interesting observation concerning our perception of persons accused of crime. Do criminals look the part? See: What do criminals look like? published today.

In her column, Ms. Brown relates a murder she prosecuted murder where there was overwhelming evidence of the accused’s guilt, but nevertheless the trial ended with a hung jury. Afterward, she learned that some jurors refused to convict because the defendant didn’t look like a murderer. (She obtained a conviction on re-trial where the prosecution specifically addressed the appearance issue.)

This phenomenon is not unknown to anyone. Art, folklore, and literature are replete with depictions and descriptions of good and evil personified. Heroes are beautiful and physically perfect; villains are ugly and deformed – monsters. From the images of St. Michael versus Satan, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry Tudor and Richard III, through the stories of handsome princes and hideous trolls of Brothers Grimm, it has been easy to spot the intended villains simply by their appearance. Some of us remember the long running comic strip Dick Tracy, where the square-jawed, chiseled-featured detective pursued numerous grotesque caricatures of bad guys. The simile “ugly as sin” has been around for a long time, and aptly reflects our attitude.

Human beings rely on their eyes more than any other sensory organ. Other species have a higher developed sense of smell or hearing, but we have our sight. This is a product of evolution and environment. Those who avoid early death based on their apprehension of danger live to reproduce; those who do not so perceive will not, over time anyway. Smells and sound may be more useful in certain surroundings, but the human milieu depends on the perception of reflected light.

While reliance on stereotypical appearance and experience can be protective in this regard, it quite often produces unhappy and unjust results. I recall an instructor in the police academy emphasizing that out on the street you don’t see persons with “criminal” stamped on their forehead (which might be an argument for bring back the medieval practice of branding convicts – just kidding). The lesson there was primarily safety; be careful when approaching anybody out there, regardless of appearance. Appearance, however, can indicative of a lot of latent characteristics. Profiling persons is legitimate and necessary in all walks of life, sometimes even when it involves, in part, the apparent race of a person. Survival may depend upon it, as Jesse Jackson once famously observed.

This may be true on the street, but not in the courtroom, the legislature, or the office. Appearance alone does not reveal character; behavior over time quite often does. As Ms. Brown points out, appearances have been much made of in the Florida case where one person is accused of unjustifiably killing another, while maintaining he was justified. Early photos of the deceased as a smiling child doubtless raised the ire of many; later photos of him as an almost adult have the opposite impact. One can also make a similar observation in viewing different photos of the accused. While the end result should be based on the behavior of the deceased and the accused at the critical time, it is a safe bet that both men’s appearance will have some effect. Both the prosecutors and defense counsel must take that into account and present their cases accordingly. Injustice will continue to occur so long as courts and juries make judgments based on what someone looks like rather than what they did.

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