Wardrobe vital to trial strategy


Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
CLOTHES on Page 3B Continued from 1B CLOTHES: Societal standards lower By LISE FISHER Sun staff writer Talk to almost any defense attorney and it seems they have a story involving defendants, clothes and the importance of dressing the part for court.
"I can remember getting ready to walk into a trial on the first day of a vehicular-homicide case," Gainesville attorney Craig DeThomasis said. "My client was wearing a Gatornationals T-shirt. That absolutely happened to me."
Then there was a DUI case, he said, with a defendant who wore a shirt where people could see his tattoo that read, "Ride hard and be free."
"Everything you do in a courtroom means something and portrays something about you or your case, and part of what you are portraying is your appearance," DeThomasis said. "You want the person to be comfortable, and you want them to be in something that is appropriate for them and the case and still shows respect."
In the summertime, when temperatures in Florida rise into the high 90s but feel even hotter, standards for what people wear in court appear to drop, attorneys agree.
Defense attorney Ted Curtis said, "It's so hot that people are going to show up in shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops. I don't think you should show up in court looking like you're going to the beach."
Local defense attorney Bill Davis said he's noticed people dressing down as temperatures creep up.
And it's not only the attorneys who pay attention to what people wear. Judges have their own stories too.
Judges take notice Alachua County Judge Ysleta McDonald said she remembers a young woman who came to court wearing a jacket with an obscene word on it. McDonald asked a bailiff to have her come to her chambers where she asked about the jacket. The woman, she said, immediately removed the jacket.
"I think it's just not something they think about," McDonald said about why people wear inappropriate clothing in court.
McDonald said the standard she applies in court is to make sure someone is "decently dressed." Otherwise, she said, a person's attire is not something with which she is concerned.
Union County Judge David Reiman said he is curious why people wouldn't want to dress better for court.
"I would think if most of us, if we thought it was going to affect our freedoms and liberties, we would want to put our best foot forward," he said.
Sending a message While Reiman said society has become more relaxed about what's deemed acceptable, clothing that sends some sort of message such as T-shirts with suggestive slogans occasionally has prompted him to halt a court hearing.
Reiman said he's told defendants that the hearing will be held at a later date and invites them to "reflect on their appearance" before continuing with the case.
That does not mean people are or should be judged solely on what they wear, Reiman and the attorneys said. But a good attorney treats it as another factor that must be reviewed in a case.
DeThomasis said, "My experience in going around the state is our judges are certainly more relaxed, I would say, about appearance. I've been in other jurisdictions where posted on the doorway is what's inappropriate."
Some attorneys say that relaxed standards mean defendants can appear more casually dressed in hearings that only involve a judge.
But when it comes to a jury, they say the best advice is to dress as if they were headed to a job interview or church.
Davis said, "Often they don't hear from the defendant. First impressions are important . . . and that becomes a lasting impression throughout the trial, and it is a problem."
Lawyers plan ahead Attorneys also know that some defendants can't afford dressier clothes or don't have family to provide them with court-appropriate garments.
That's why Davis said he keeps a clothes closet, just in case, which he lets public defenders, who also keep back-up clothes for defendants, raid.
Curtis said he tells his clients they should dress appropriately for every court appearance, no matter if they're in front of a judge or jury.
"I put it in a standard letter that I write to all my clients," he said.
Curtis said he takes a client's appearance so seriously that he considers what they wear as part of his pretrial strategy. If the case is expected to last a week, he said he wants to see what the person plans to wear for the entire week.
"It is a solemn occasion usually and expressing the right attitude cannot hurt and probably does help."
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun. com.

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