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Court apparel of some surprise, vex lawyers, judges September 12, 2005 - thetimesonline.com
Judges wear robes. Lawyers wear suits.
What are some defendants thinking?
Some people show up for court hearings wearing the darnedest things, say the lawyers who advocate for them and the judges who hear their cases.
A few recent examples:
A woman begging the judge to go easy on her cocaine-dealing son because she needed him to help her at home wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the sequined phrase, "It's all about me."
A young man appearing in court on drug dealing charges sported a T-shirt with a big picture of the soles of a pair of feet with a toe tag. The caption read, "He was a snitch."
One woman came to court to ask the judge for a favor, which the judge granted -- to turn her felony conviction into a misdemeanor.
She completed probation successfully.
She did everything she was ordered to do.
She was wearing a T-shirt that stated, "Every day I add another name on my list of people who PISS ME OFF!"
A woman accused of helping her mother move her father's dead body -- the man her mother allegedly killed to hide gambling debts -- appeared in court wearing a Majestic Star Casino T-shirt.
"The trend is all downhill," said Thomas Vanes, defense attorney and Lowell town judge.
"I had a kid once wearing a shirt with a marijuana leaf on it -- and he was there for marijuana possession."
Most defense lawyers give their clients the same advice: "Dress like you're going to church."
But most don't listen.
Defense attorney Charles Graddick said the problem isn't always that the defendant thumbs his nose at the advice.
"Some don't know it's not appropriate (to dress in shorts and graphic T-shirts)," Graddick said.
"Others don't care. They're more concerned with impressing people for the wrong reasons. I tell them they don't want to send a message that's opposite of what you're trying to accomplish."
And what they're trying to accomplish is to show the judge they are a good person who would never commit a crime. Or something like that.
The problem is, defendants are in front of the judge for such a short time there's not much chance to make a good impression, Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak said.
"I was brought up to show respect to authority and along with that respect, the appropriate dress should be worn," Stefaniak said.
"T-shirts from concerts with drug or gang or rap overtones have no business in the courthouse. I judge the situation before me based on everything that is before me, and in making a sentencing decision I have to assess a person's character. Part of a person's character sometimes can be gleaned from the way that they dress."
If someone thinks it's unfair to be judged by outside appearances, consider that jurors never see a defendant in handcuffs, Vanes said. It's human nature to see someone in chains and to think they may have done something wrong.
"Seeing a defendant in shackles is basically seen as a constitutional violation," Vanes said.
Dressing respectfully doesn't mean expensively, either.
Many public defenders go so far as to buy a dress shirt and pants from a discount or resale shop for a client on trial, Vanes said.
"It's not a matter of poverty. Some of the jerseys cost more than a shirt and tie from Wal-Mart," he said. "It's people not thinking it through -- not realizing the impression they're creating. Casual is OK. But sloppy? You can't help but read it as a sign the person isn't taking it seriously, and that doesn't bode well."
Stefaniak said when he was a judge in Hammond and someone came to court dressed inappropriately -- women with no bra and people wearing shirts with drug emblems -- he often would send them home to change. It was easier there, he said, because most of the people were local.
But it's not just defendants who get told how to dress, Stefaniak said.
He expects lawyers to wear a conservative suit.
"It doesn't always occur, but I have pulled attorneys aside and told them what was appropriate," Stefaniak said.