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updated: 4/6/2014 6:29 AM

When it comes to trial, clothes make the defendant

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  • Jennifer Maples, left, and Kristen Nevdal, senior assistant DuPage County public defenders, show off the many ties available, usually for defendants going on trial.

       Jennifer Maples, left, and Kristen Nevdal, senior assistant DuPage County public defenders, show off the many ties available, usually for defendants going on trial.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Jennifer Maples, senior assistant public defender, shows a jacket available for a defendant -- an option many see as preferable to coming to court in a county jail-issued orange jumpsuit.

       Jennifer Maples, senior assistant public defender, shows a jacket available for a defendant -- an option many see as preferable to coming to court in a county jail-issued orange jumpsuit.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Kristen Nevdal, left and Jennifer Maples, senior assistant public defenders, sort through clothes available for a defendants at trial.

       Kristen Nevdal, left and Jennifer Maples, senior assistant public defenders, sort through clothes available for a defendants at trial.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Publice defender's wardrobe

 
 

While preparing clients for trial, one of the issues facing DuPage County Public Defender Jeff York is often his client's wardrobe.

"I usually will ask my client, 'If you're going to church with your grandmother, what would you wear?'" York said. "'It's really to make sure you get a fair trial. And you really would have a difficult time getting a fair trial dressed in orange and shackles.'"

Not everyone York and his staff represents has or can afford their own set of Sunday best.

Those who can't, often have their courtroom attire selected from a little-known wardrobe department in the public defenders' office, which is stocked with everything from ties to belts and shoes.

"It's organized by size so we can find clothes in a shorter amount of time," York said. "A lot of times, you'd run to Kohl's or Goodwill before your trial, and that was it.

"That still happens when we may not have something in someone's particular size, but we do have quite a few options and we use them a lot. The whole reason for dedicating this space is to make sure we dress (the defendants) in a way that looks respectful and professional to the court and gives them their best, fair opportunity at trial."

While the closet is reserved primarily for defendants on trial, it can prove useful just about any time.

"A juvenile showed up once wearing a really inappropriate sweatshirt and then he took it off and had an even more inappropriate T-shirt," said Kristen Nevdal, senior assistant public defender. "The judge had him flip it inside out, but it's nice to have (the wardrobe) as an option if it were a trial."

While pretty well-stocked, the wardrobe department doesn't have everything.

"I just had a trial where my guy had dimensions we did not have in the closet, so I had to run to the Goodwill," Nevdal said.

Brian Jacobs, the deputy chief public defender known for his flashy bow ties, never expected he'd be responsible for dressing his clients. Yet, he finds some of his most important decisions are made in his office's wardrobe department.

"They certainly don't teach you how to do this in law school. I don't know how to dress people. I can hardly dress myself," Jacobs said. "I once dressed a client in a nice white Oxford and nice blue pants for trial. He came out, and I immediately thought 'He's in a Department of Corrections outfit.' I did such a bad job. He looked like he was coming from prison. Those things happen."

Fashion faux pas aside, a client's physical appearance for a trial can be a matter of strategic planning.

Jennifer Maples, senior assistant public defender, said it's important for her clients to fit in with the courtroom setting.

"All of the attorneys are in suits. The state's attorneys are in suits, and the judge is in a robe so the defendants often want to be part of the decorum of everyone else," Maples said. "Just because they may not have access to a suit, you don't want them to be the one who looks different. You want your client to look like everyone else who is there and show they take it seriously, too."

Sometimes it's not as easy as throwing on a suit.

"If it's a gang case, sometimes I try to dress them what I perceive to be nerdier than what your average gang member might look to lower the intimidation factor most jurors would have," Jacobs said. "If they have lots of tattoos, I try to get the tattoos covered up. Sometimes you can't do that. If they have neck tattoos or head tattoos, that becomes difficult."

Despite the public defenders' best sartorial efforts, York said he's seen clients insist on wearing their orange jail jumpsuits to trial.

"In some respects, that may be strategic, too, to earn sympathy from a jury -- like 'Look at me. I've been in jail the whole time.'"

York said the strategy doesn't end at his client's outfit, however. He also might dress down so as not to give the appearance of being a flashy attorney.

"I don't want a jury thinking I'm a really high-priced lawyer, even though I might talk like one," York said. "I won't wear my best shoes or worry about shining my shoes that day, because I don't want to give the jury the impression that this guy spent a lot of money on me. I might not even mind if the jury knows I'm a public defender."

And when he's done, he just may donate that day's outfit to the closet.

"We get the clothes from a lot of different places. A lot of attorneys have donated their clothes, so they may be a little worn. We've had judges donate their clothes, and also sometimes we send our interns out to Goodwill to restock our closet," York said. "A real challenge for us is cleaning them. There's laundry baskets and eventually we send them to a laundry place that charges us by the pound, but we don't have a huge budget for that kind of thing."

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