Tuesday, December 07, 2010

saving face

I cringe to think that I haven't posted since July of this year. Things have been a bit wild in my life, hence the blogging sabbatical. Lucky for you I'm back with some old-school mod-a-delic blogaliciousness! In scouring the web for tattoo-related news stories this week, I came across one that particularly piqued my interest.
In a nutshell: John Ditullio was jailed on suspicion of involvement in a double stabbing that occurred in 2006. Since his arrest he's acquired 3 new and shocking tats, including a long line of barbed wire down the right side of his face, a swastika on one side of his neck, and the words "fuck you" on the other side of his neck. Now that he's going to trial for the stabbings, his state appointed defense attorney has arranged for a cosmetologist to cover up the tats at a rate of $125 per day to be paid by the state. The move was approved by the judge in the case, but an internet debate (check the comments section) is currently raging with opinions flying as to whether covering up the tats makes for a fair trial, and if so, whether the state should be footing the bill.
Some are of the opinion that the makeup job will allow the jurors to focus only on the evidence of the case rather than the appearance of the defendant, evening the playing field for the man. They say covering up the tats is akin to dressing a defendant in a nice suit for trial . The other camp believes that if Ditullio got the tattoos of his own free will he shouldn't be given special treatment to disguise his appearance. They say that everything in the case should be considered, the tattoos included, as they are a part of the defendant's life and lifestyle. In their opinions, any attempt to hide the truth of this man's actions in life is unacceptable.
There's a lot to consider here. Even as a mod enthusiast and advocate, I'm torn as to how to react. On the one hand, I am definitely sympathetic to heavily tattooed individuals who have to go to court and defend themselves. Although tattoos are becoming ever more mainstream, society at large still can't shake off past perceptions of tats as indicators of delinquency and even mental illness. Remnants of this perception still linger, perhaps even subconsciously, and can affect one's "gut feeling" about a person with tattoos. With this in mind, I can see why it is appropriate for Dutillio to have his highly visible tats covered.
On the other hand, the subject matter of Dutillio's ink is offensive and hate filled. If our self-chosen outer marks indicate the content of our inner selves, shouldn't the court be allowed to have a peek into this man's dark and troubled soul? But what if the freaky tats were not acquired in an effort to eternally proclaim Ditullio's hate, but rather to quell his fear? Prison is a scary place (I can assume...), and sometimes one's only chance at survival is through affiliation with a group that will help to protect you. Permanently inking his flesh with a symbol that identifies him as a hardcore neo-Nazi could have been the only thing keeping Dutillio alive in prison, so who are we to say he's crazy for doing it? People go to extreme measures to protect their well being.
Perhaps my biggest qualm with covering up the tats is that they weren't completely covered up - a CROSS remains under Ditullio's right eye! How can the judge agree to take Ditullio from "Kill thy neighbor" to "Love thy neighbor" without batting an eye?! The man is a neo-Nazi and probably hates God and Christianity, so there's no denying that the switch from a swastika to a cross is nothing short of deceptive.

So, what's the answer? Should Ditullio be allowed to have his tats covered up? Is there another solution that might be less expensive, or perhaps one that wouldn't involve fraudultently portraying Ditullio as a Christian?
One commentor wondered if a jury made up entirely of tattooed individuals would change anything. This begs the question, are modded folk more sympathetic to their inked brethren, even if the content of the tats is hateful? The makeup job is intended to make Ditullio appear to the jurors like "one of us," but what does this mean? Is looking like "one of us" equivalent to being "one of us," or is it what the tattoos signify about Ditullio's mindstate that makes him different? In this light, a jury of neo-Nazis rather than inked folk would be more appropriate, and I don't see that happening anytime soon.
Another alternative was proposed by prosecuting attorney, Mike Halkitis:

"Instead, Mr. Halkitis said, the judge could just as easily instruct the jury to ignore the tattoos in their consideration of the case. 'We believe the jurors listen to judges’ instructions,' he said."

Okay, following instructions is one thing, but pushing aside a deeply ingrained bias that many people hold against modded folk (especially those with offensive or shocking mods) isn't an easy thing to do. I mean, am I right? Or could the jurors actually manage to ignore the unsettling ink and give the guy a fair trial?
Well, even if we could all agree that covering up Ditullio's tats is the fair thing to do, two problems remain. The first is that the state (and thus taxpayers) should definitely NOT be footing this guy's cosmetology bill. Buying an impoverished defendant a cheap suit is one thing, but picking up the tab for covering up the tats that he willingly acquired, knowing he would have to wear them to court, is quite another. Court ordered or not, it just doesn't seem right.
The second problem is that covering up Ditullio's tats for fear that jurors may be prejudiced against tattooed individuals could set a problematic precedent. Will African-American defendants soon request to have the state pay for them to be sprayed with makeup that lightens their skin color during trial? After all, there are an inordinately larger number of black individuals on death row as compared to any other race. Are these people being unfairly judged by juries that are biased against blacks? And what if a defense attorney believes his/her client will be unfairly discriminated against in court due to a set of jagged, broken teeth? Will the state have to pay for the problem to be remedied with a set of veneers? How far will it go? Jurors can be influenced both positively and negatively by any number of physical attributes - should defendants be allowed to totally transform themselves in order to garner as much positive regard from the jury as possible?
In the end, despite my many qualms with the judge's decision, I'm leaning toward agreement with the cover-up. I spoke with a defense attorney friend of mine about the case, and he told me that he does everything in his power to ensure that all his clients are seen as innocent until proven guilty. This includes cleaning up their appearance in any way possible, thus removing the potential for preconceived notions about the defendant before the trial even begins. According to our justice system, everyone deserves a fair chance to defend themselves. If jurors are distracted by Ditullio's tats, they may not focus on the facts of the case and the evidence at hand, and instead make a decision based on appearances. Thus, I do think the decision to allow covering up the tats was valid, it's just a shame that the taxpayers are being forced to pay $125 a day for it when a simple turtleneck could have done the job just as well.

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