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Pokin Around: Defense lawyers say it's OK for clients to look at jurors — just don't stare

A week ago, I wrote a story in which I talked to four people on the jury that convicted Brad Jennings of Buffalo of murder in 2009. That conviction last month was set aside.

The jury forewoman told me she was "uncomfortable" with Jennings' demeanor during trial but would not elaborate.

That got me thinking. How is a defendantsupposed to act in front of a jury?

How should he or she dress?

Should he make eye contact with jurors?

Should he take notes?

When he hears testimony he thinks is untrue, should he scoff? Roll his eyes? Bang his fist on the table?

For answers, I asked five criminal defense attorneys: Patrick Berrigan, who represents Craig Wood; Kristin Jones of the Springfield firm of Jones and Musgrave; Nancy Price of the Nancy Graven Price Law Office in Springfield; Robert Ramsey, a St. Louis attorney who last month got a judge to vacate the murder conviction of Jennings; and Dee Wampler, dean of Springfield defense attorneys, who has been at it 46 years.

What should your client wear at trial?

First, appearance is more important in front of a jury than a judge, they say.

“But it is also important in front of a judge. Judges are people, too," said Price. “How you dress reflects the respect you feel — or don’t feel — for where you are.

“It depends on the person," she said. "If you’re a farmer or a drywaller, I do not want that person to put on a suit.”

If the defendant is charged with a financial crimes case, she adds, she wants the client to dress nice — but not too nice.

"I don't want them to look too successful."

For women, flashy is not good, she said.

“I don’t like women to wear anything that is sexually revealing or sexually distracting. No tanks or camisoles. Nothing too flashy."

Says Jones, "Go easy on the makeup."

According to Ramsey, “I just tell them that I would like you to dress like you were going to church."

In general, they say:

Cover up tattoos.

Don't wear a lot of jewelry.

No white socks.

Don't wear athletic shoes.

Price wants men to wear a button-down shirt.

And absolutely no T-shirts or blue jeans.

Do you want your client to sit next to you?

"Always," said Price.

Pokin Around: Defense lawyers say it's OK for clients to look at jurors — just don't stare

“Several times during trial I will put my arm around or my hand on the defendant," says Wampler. "You try to humanize the client."

But Jones never wants her client to look directly at jurors at a moment when something happens that hurts the defense. That's not a good time, she said.

According to Price, “Staring at the jury can be misinterpreted and cause jurors to feel uncomfortable."

Q: Is it OK for the defendant to physically react to evidence or testimony by — for example — scoffing or rolling their eyes?

They tell clients not to do that, but it's hard to prevent, they say.

"No histrionics. No gestures. No rolling of the eyes," Price said. "Now, that being said, I think it is pretty difficult to follow."

Said Wampler: “You do not want your client or their family in the audience snickering or scoffing or shaking their heads and stomping out. You tell your client to sit there and to not reveal any emotions at all.”

Jones wants a "poker face."

Ramsey said he learned a lesson decades ago on how an emotional outburst can hurt.a defendant.

At the time, Ramsey was a public defender in St. Louis. The defendant had already fired four public defenders, and Ramsey was the fifth.

His client was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 240 pounds and was accused of robbing a bank.

The defendant told Ramsey he planned to have an impact at trial but would not reveal what he planned. Ramsey urged him not to do that.

A teller had testified the bank robber was about 5 feet, 11 inches and 185 pounds.

"At the time, those were my dimensions," Ramsey said. "So every time I could, I had him stand up next to me."

Ramsey hammered away at the height discrepancy and was convinced the jury would find his client not guilty.

In a last-ditch effort, Ramsey said, the prosecutor realized things looked bleak, so he wanted the defendant to try on a sports coat found in the getaway car. It was size 40 regular.

"My client was a hulking figure," Ramsey said. "As he starts to put it on you can hear the seams ripping apart. I'm up at the bench. He is at the defense table. He suddenly grabs my cigarette lighter, bangs it on the table and shouts at the jury"I want f---ing justice!"

He was convicted.

The perp walk

Wampler was the only attorney to mention that he offers advice to clients for the "perp walk." That is when the defendant is first arrested and is in public with police. In major cases, the media often is present.

“Law enforcement kind of shows off the defendant a little bit," Wampler said. "I tell my clients to look straight ahead, be confident and to ignore anything that is said to them.

“Don’t be looking around, or smiling or giving the finger.”

Q: Do you want your male clients clean shaven?

Yes, said Patrick Berrigan, who represents Wood, who has been sentenced to death for killing Hailey Owens.

But at times it is a struggle to convince younger male clients to shave all their facial hair because they know they might be going to prison in the near future, and the younger they look, the more likely they will be preyed upon by other inmates.

"They want to look tough," he said.

Not only does he want his client clean shaven, Berrigan said, he also will shave off his own facial hair.

He does this because he often defends people facing the death penalty and he knows the high stakes.

It's possible, he explained, there could be a juror who simply despises facial hair.

If that sounds unlikely, stranger things have happened.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, Wampler defended a "clean-cut guy with no record."

Wampler's custom back then was to talk to jurors after the verdict. He did this to gain insight on what worked at trial and what didn't.

In this particular case, a female juror told him something unexpected. She said she could never have convicted his client. The reason was simple.

"Anyone with baby blue eyes like that could not have been guilty."

These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper six years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.

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