A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Murder, Ink: Neo-Nazi Cover-up?

By Drew Smith

Legendary litigator Clarence Darrow observed that “jurymen seldom convict a person they like, or acquit one they dislike.”  John Ditullio, a recent defendant in a Florida murder trial, is a man very difficult to like.  He sports a six inch swastika in black ink just beneath his right ear.  A strand of barbed wire is tattooed over his right eye, a teardrop marked under the left.  There’s a vulgar instruction to passersby on his neck, and his beard grows a devilish point.

The marks are the bulls-eyes of a white supremacist, stamped to be seen.  Nevertheless, as reported on Fox News, a judge ordered Florida to pay $150 per day during Ditullio’s trial to make them vanish.  It’s the kind of pin-pulling headline-grabbing story that swiftly ignites taxpayer outrage.  But Ditullio’s trial lasted only a few days, leaving a bill roughly equivalent to the revenue from a single DUI fine.  And crusaders for truth and accuracy should note that the tattoos that were covered at trial were inked while the defendant was in jail awaiting trial.

In other words, these tattoos didn’t exist on the night of March 23, 2006, when a man dressed in a white shirt, khakis, and a gas mask entered the home of Patricia Wells, slashing her face and stabbing Kristofer King, her son’s friend to death.  Police inquiry revealed that outspoken members of the neo-Nazi club in the trailer next-door had routinely harassed Wells for having a black friend and threatened her homosexual son..  Further investigation pointed to Ditullio, a member of the hate group, as the masked culprit; Ditullio was arrested and charged with King’s murder.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fresh suit and conservative haircut can sway a jury’s opinion about a defendant, maybe even its verdict.  In the law review article  “Courtroom Demeanor: The Theater of the Courtroom“, Professor Laurie Levenson discusses defendants’ clothing and demeanor impacting jury verdicts.  The Menendez brothers, for example, faced charges for murdering their parents, and appeared in court dressed in preppy, youthful, clothing, to create the “illusion that the ‘boys’ were incapable of committing the vicious acts with which they were charged.”  Though later convicted, the brothers initially hung their jury, and interviews with jurors of the hung jury post-trial indicate that the brothers’ outward appearance had a strong impact on the jury.

Bjorn Brunvand, Ditullio’s defense attorney, felt that a trim of the beard and a two piece navy suit wouldn’t suffice to combat jury prejudice against his client.  For a chance that twelve people in New Port Richey, Florida could feel sympathetic towards Ditullio, every bit of the offensive ink on his  face would have to be scrubbed clean.

Brunvand asked the court’s permission to retain a cosmetologist, and Judge Michael Andrews granted the request, limiting the cloaking to tattoos acquired post-murder – that is, the swastika, barbed wire, teardrop and explicit phrase.  Each morning before trial, a licensed cosmetologist obscured the ink, sparing an older tattoo, a small cross, below his right eye.  Because the defendant was indigent, Florida taxpayers picked up the check, up to $150 per day for the week-long trial.  In addition, Ditullio’s beard was transformed into a conservative goatee, and he appeared in court in a buttoned-down collared shirt.

Whatever the value of Brunvand’s maneuver, the twelve jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict.  With jury members stuck at ten not guilty, and two guilty votes, Judge Andrews declared the jury hung and ordered a mistrial, scheduling new proceedings to begin in late March.

We will follow this story as it unfolds.

Sources:

Tampa Bay Online coverage, http://www2.tbo.com/topic/k/kristofer-king/
Levenson, “Courtroom Demeanor: The Theater of the Courtroom,” 92 MNLR 573

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