Many were surprised to see defendant Bryan Kohberger, the sole suspect in the murders of four Idaho college students, walk into court wearing a black suit and tie instead of the orange jumpsuit, for several of the hearings preceding the criminal trial.
Some commentators were outraged, and argued that someone charged with murder should not be allowed to appear before the court in any other garments than the ones provided by the legal system, others said that the choice might involve a security risk for those present in the same room as Kohberger, while a small segment of the audience, at least as far as I could assess, thought it to be a decent way to treat someone not yet convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
Now, I am not a lawyer and I do not work in law enforcement, so I will not address the possible legal or security implications of this strategy choice from Kohberger and his defense team but what I do want to analyze are the move’s potential psychological interpretations.
What is the impact the defendant’s appearance may have on the public? Why a suit and tie? What do clothes have to do with a person’s guilt or innocence? Shouldn’t it all be about the evidence?
Let’s take a closer look at these, and many more other elements of court appearance psychology, as well as attempt to consider the various ramifications they may have on the trial’s outcome.
Why would Kohberger and his team even think about the clothes he’s wearing during the court appearances? Don’t they have more significant issues to deal with than his looks?
Well, even though the “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying is tossed around a lot in public settings, the truth is that we do factor in someone’s appearance when globally assessing them and building an image about not only their physical attractiveness but also about their personality traits. We even treat people differently based on how they look.
People standing trial are dependent on the public’s opinion of them, especially that of the jury but also that of the larger audience. What they wear, how they style their hair, how clean and put together they look, it all sets the scene for the bigger context – the evaluation of this person’s alleged actions and intentions.
So yes, Bryan Kohberger and the defense team need to take clothing into consideration as well. Please also note that there are previous situations where a defendant’s clothing, as well as the use of visible shackles and leg irons even triggered the reversal of convictions. In Ryals vs. the State, the Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed a conviction, concluding that “trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to Ryals proceeding to trial dressed in prison attire and for not requesting a continuance to provide proper clothing for Ryals“.
I don’t think anyone would want a significant trial and its conclusions to be jeopardized by such matters. This is mainly an interest on the prosecution’s side, to allow the defendant to wear clothing that triggers no prejudice and no further issues for the legal proceedings.
But what would the defendant gain from designing his appearance in a way that doesn’t include the jail jumpsuit? Couldn’t he or she just play the victim card after the fact? It could help them, right?
Well, there seem to be more advantages to wearing carefully chosen clothes to an event that will decide whether you will spend time in prison, how long a sentence would be, and even if you get to live or die as a result of the trial. However, there are disadvantages as well.
Let’s take a closer look at the main psychological implications and effects regarding the Idaho murders suspect’s appearance in court.
The Psychological Implications of Bryan Kohberger’s Suit and Tie
- He looks like a normal person, not someone accused of murder. The choice of clothing removes most prejudice and biases.
- It gives the public an opportunity to envision a version of Kohberger from before his arrest and accusations. This is what he would look like if you would’ve met him randomly on the street or at the university he was studying. This is Kohberger the young man, the student, not the defendant and potential mass murderer.
- The suit and tie look humanizes him. The “monster” label followed Bryan Kohberger from the very second he was shown to the public in the orange jumpsuit. The first images of him after the arrest made everyone talk about his impressive height, body structure, strong arms, and evil stare. The protective vest he was wearing underneath the jumpsuit made him seem even more dominant and intimidating. The suit, white shirt, tie, and styled hair soften his look.
- Kohberger looks professional in a suit and tie. It’s what formal wear is mainly for, isn’t it? It conveys professionalism. This young man was a Ph.D. student in the field of criminology. This is him as a future professional. He means business and conveys the qualities that we usually associate with respectable professionals. Yeah, we’re getting fooled by clothing very often. And the thing is, we know better. We just choose, as a society, to fall for the same trivial things over and over again. The height also helps him here. Instead of looking intimidating, he looks dominant, but in a good way. Leader-type dominance.
- He looks serious and trustworthy. The clothing helps Kohberger convey to those watching that he is a dignified, determined young man with a purpose. “How could someone so driven and conscientious commit such a horrific crime?”, one can almost hear the defense say during the trial.
These are some of the advantages of Bryan Kohberger’s choice to wear a suit and tie during some court appearances. But we must also consider the potential disadvantages of this part of the strategy.
- Some people may expect an individual accused of murder to accept his fate, especially if he knows he did it. The orange jumpsuit is part of the consequences of his actions. This may also lead to a more lenient conviction. And even if the suspect is not guilty of the crime, still, they somehow ended up in that context and must act in a way that respects the legal proceedings, as an extension of the community’s will. Kohberger may seem defiant and disrespectful.
- Changing one’s appearance may be seen as a way to manipulate the jurors and the general public. In a sense, it is exactly that, and all of us engage in the practice one way or another. But in this context, some people may not appreciate Kohberger’s intentional attempt to modify their opinion of him. This may work against him during the trial.
- The suit and tie may trigger inferiority-related biases. “Why is this guy, who is accused of four first-degree murders, trying to make himself look more important than other people? With his Ph.D. and fancy degrees. Does he think he’s better than us?” – This is a potential reaction from members of the public who may struggle in their own life with certain inferiority issues. This, as well, may work against Bryan Kohberger.
It’s a fragile balance that the suspect and his team must consider and maintain at all times during the legal proceedings. Every choice will count, to some degree, toward the trial’s conclusions and the public reaction to Kohberger.
Ultimately, I also want to address the actual choice – suit and tie -, as an option picked from many other available ones. Okay, the defendant in a criminal trial does not have to wear clothes provided by the jail, but there are so many options.
Why would the defense go for formal wear instead of, let’s say, casual attire, something that may showcase their client’s personality traits better?
Well, first of all, if your client is either too plain or an actual evil individual, showcasing their true self wouldn’t help the case. The defense team needs to tell a story, and clothes must fit and help their narrative.
In this case, as it happened in many others, I imagine that the defense wants to make Bryan Kohberger look like a serious, responsible, smart young man. The suit conveys this better than jeans and T-shirts. Also, they went for a black suit, instead of a grey or dark blue one. The black goes with grave tones, with the severity of an event or context. It shows that they, as a team, respect the grief of the families who lost their loved ones in the tragic event. It’s respectful and almost mournful. A good choice, whoever made it.
The list of other notorious defendants who wore suits during their public criminal trials includes Dennis Rader – an off-white suit and tie, and Ted Bundy – grey, brown, and blue suits. While Rader was only trying to get a more lenient sentence, Bundy wanted to get away with his crimes and walk out of the court as a free man. Rader was trying to only impress the judge, while Bundy was using his charisma to win over the jury. Rader got sentenced to 175 years in prison without the possibility of parole, while Bundy received the death penalty. Just to show that a suit may help but it won’t make or break a trial.
The role of an individual’s appearance in court is mainly aimed at diminishing prejudice. It also helps build the defense story but ultimately, the evidence speaks louder than looks.
As I was saying in a previous article, my main goal regarding this trial is to see a fair assessment of the available evidence and connected data. The families of the victims, as well as the community, deserve this form of justice – to have a murderer isolated from society and punished, to whatever level this might be possible, for his or her crimes. On the other hand, Bryan Kohberger also deserves a fair trial, so he must be allowed to play the cards he’s holding, together with his team, in the best way they see possible in these circumstances.
And then the jury will decide, and so will the people watching the trial.
Judge denies Bryan Kohberger defense motion, trial to start in October. Court TV. (n.d.). https://www.courttv.com/news/judge-denies-bryan-kohberger-defense-motion-trial-to-start-in-october/
Ryals v. State of South Carolina, Appellate Case No. 2018-000570 (S.C. Ct. App. 2023). Retrieved August 22, 2023, from https://www.sccourts.org/opinions/HTMLFiles/COA/5971%20.pdf