The nerd defence: Non-prescription glasses the latest trend in criminal testimony

Lindsay MacAdam
Shine On

Thick, plastic-framed glasses are no longer reserved for hipsters, fashion editors and computer geeks. In the world of criminal law in the United States, it seems they've become the new 'it' accessory, donned by defendants in an effort to convince the jury of their innocence.

A prime example: Five men charged with a 2010 string of murders in the District of Columbia caused quite a stir when they showed up to their recent trial, each wearing a pair of non-prescription, plastic-framed glasses, reports the Washington Post.

The prosecutor drew attention to the strange coincidence, and after asking a witness if he had ever seen the defendants wearing glasses before, the answer was a resounding "No."

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"This goes beyond shirts and ties," says Richard Waites, chief executive of jury consulting firm The Advocates, to the Washington Post. "Jurors expect to see defendants wearing those. Jurors don't expect to see defendants wearing glasses if they don't have to."

The idea behind the glasses is, of course, to make the accused appear less intimidating and more trust-worthy. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Forensic Psychology in 2008, found that African American defendants were believed to be more honest and intelligent and less threatening when they were wearing glasses. The accused in the D.C. murder case were all African American.

That isn't the only case where non-prescription glasses have been used to sway a jury. Harvey Slovis, a New York-based defence lawyer, makes all of his clients wear glasses in the courtroom. According to the Washington Post, Slovis calls it his "nerd defence."

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Whether the glasses succeed in persuading the jurors or not, the question on everyone's mind is whether or not this type of strategy should be permitted in a court of law. Is it ethical? Some people don't think so.

"It says you're trying to hide," says Gladys Weatherspoon, a Washington-based defence attorney, to the Washington Post. "It makes them look more guilty because it's not who they are."

Patricia Jefferies, a grandmother of one of the D.C. murder victims, didn't shy away from voicing her opinion about the accuseds' glasses. "Those glasses are influencing the jury, trying to make them think they're Boy Scouts or something," Jefferies tells the Washington Post outside the courtroom.

What are your thoughts on the use of misleading props in the courtroom? Where should judges draw the line?