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Courts are often kinder to baby-faced people

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WASHINGTON -- Justice isn't blind.

In court, just as in life, researchers say it helps to be good-looking. Sometimes it even helps to have a baby face.Leslie A. Zebrowitz, a Brandeis University psychology professor, studied hundreds of small-claims court cases and found significant differences in outcome for baby-faced people vs. those with more mature looks.

"The more baby-faced the defendant, the less likely they are to be found at fault if they are accused of doing something intentional," Zebrowitz said. That's because baby-faced people are viewed as more naive and honest and less likely to do something wrong on purpose.

Lying witnesses, missing evidence and racial bias have been studied as problems that can undermine justice in a trial. An often overlooked problem is that judges and jurors can be influenced by someone's looks.

All this may buttress famed criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow's claim years ago that juries seldom convict a defendant they like, regardless of the facts.

Baby-faced people have bigger eyes and foreheads and more rounded features than people with angular, mature-looking faces.

An example: Louise Woodward, the round-cheeked British au pair convicted in Massachusetts last year of killing a baby in her care. The judge reduced the second-degree murder verdict to manslaughter, then set her free.

William Kennedy Smith, acquitted of rape in 1991, also fits the baby-face description, although it is unknown whether his or Woodward's looks played a role in the outcomes of their cases.

Research over the past several decades has shown that good-looking people are less likely to be convicted of crimes than those who look ordinary or downright unattractive. Attractive people who are convicted also tend to get shorter sentences.

There are exceptions. Attractive people can draw harsher punishments than other people if their crime is viewed as exploiting their looks, such as swindling others.

One study found that baby-faced people are more likely to lose in court when they are accused of being negligent, apparently because they look like the kind of person who might goof.

Jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius said looks can have a great impact in court.

Jurors will say defendants "don't look like someone who is guilty of spousal abuse, or who will embezzle checks," said Dimitrius, who served on O.J. Simpson's criminal defense team.

"When I'm going into jury selection in a case, I want to know what the players look like," she said.

Short of plastic surgery, people cannot change their facial features. But they can make the best of what they have.

Dimitrius might advise a client to trim a bushy mustache or hairstyle, to sit up straight in court, or to speak faster or slower.

Philip K. Anthony of DecisionQuest, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, said trial witnesses who are harsh-looking can try to soften their communication style, while those who look more babyish might try to behave more assertively.

Anthony told of a patent case in which a jury ruled against a female inventor who had a round baby face and a passive speaking manner. "They literally said a person like this couldn't possibly invent something like this," Anthony said.

Showing embarrassment in court might help some criminal defendants, according to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

He said students used as jurors in hypothetical cases were willing to give shorter sentences to defendants who showed shame and embarrassment than to those who were defiant or emotionless.

"Even though you're conveying that you're guilty, you're signaling that you care about the mistake you made; the moral rule matters to you, and you're sorry," Keltner said. But he said a show of embarrassment "has to be sincere. You can't fake it."

Laurie Asseo covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.