A Crime Most Foul

Suzanne Fields

4/2/2007 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

"Lookism" is a crime most foul in a perfect world devised by radical feminists, though most women will usually overlook the crime when a good-looking man gives them a respectful once-over. But researchers in England, source of our common law, have identified a real crime: Jurors are more likely to convict "ugly" defendants than "attractive" defendants.

The investigators are from Bath Spa University in Bath, the lovely Somerset resort where Beau Nash set down rules of polite society and where Chaucer set his morality tale of a witch who gave an errant knight his choice of a wife "foul and faithful" or one "fair and faithless." (He cleverly asked her to choose for him, and won a faithful beauty.)

The Bath researchers asked 96 volunteers to read a transcript of a fictitious mugging case, look at a photograph of the defendant, and render a verdict. All the mock jurors got the same transcript, but half got a photograph of an "ugly" defendant and half a photograph of an "attractive" defendant. Jurors who voted "guilty" were asked to pass sentence. More jurors voted to acquit the attractive defendant than the ugly one, and even when guilty, the attractive defendant got a lighter sentence.

"Our findings confirm previous research on the effects of defendant characteristics, such as physical attractiveness," says Dr. Sandie Taylor, the psychologist who conducted the study. "Attractive defendants are rated less harshly than homely defendants." Any judge, lawyer, court reporter or courthouse hanger-on would tell you that good looks count for more than good character witnesses, which is why lawyers insist that a client on trial for murder get a close shave, a fresh haircut and a new suit for his day in court.

"People who are physically attractive are assumed to be clever, successful and have more friends," says Prof. Taylor. "It's tragic, in a way." Especially if you're innocent and ugly. The principle applies even to the law-abiding. Beauty, as the London Daily Telegraph observed in its account of the Bath research, "is associated with kindness, intelligence and sporting ability."

Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, is cited as an example of an attractive criminal who used his looks and personality to challenge justice. "Handsome, arrogant and articulate," wrote Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen Michaud of Bundy in "The Only Living Witness," their masterful study of the killer. "Bundy drew dozens of rapt groupies to his trial. Some were cookie-cutter blondes desperate to catch Ted's eye. Then there were the blue-haired and dew-lapped geriatrics from their retirement bungalows." Bundy was convicted and executed on forensic evidence, but Sandie Taylor notes that "if the forensic evidence hadn't been there, he might well have got off, because he was quite charming and knew how to work people."

But it's not just defendants in criminal cases who use their looks to confound judgment. Two research psychologists have discovered -- only in academe do people get paid to discover the obvious -- that men have only one thing on their minds when spring arrives and the sap(s) rise(s): the female "WHR." That's her "waist-to-hip ratio," calculated by dividing waist circumference by that of the hips. This can range from a curvy 0.67 (think Marilyn Monroe) to "an almost tubular 0.9" (think Kate Moss).

This is politically incorrect but defensibly scientific, because the authors, Prof. Devendra Singh of the University of Texas and Dr. Peter Renn of Harvard, published their findings in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences in London. They found evidence of a "belle curve" ingrained in the male brain, uncovered by their study of Playboy centerfolds, ancient Egyptian carvings and "tests" on men from Africa to the Azores. They found -- surprise! -- that in every century the female breasts, waist and hips are more often referred to as "beautiful" than other body parts. (Even more than elbows, knees and callused toes?) You could ask Solomon, Shakespeare or the ancient Chinese author Xu Ling (507-583 B.C.), who wrote that in the palace of Chu "there were none who did not admire their slender waists, the fair women of Wei."

Chinese waists can get the most unlikely men in trouble. The Arkansas Court of Appeals this month denied the appeal of an 85-year-old Hot Springs man (there's clearly something in the water in Hot Springs) who, pleading his advanced age, asked the court to cut alimony for his ex-wife, who accused him of spending their life's savings on expensive gifts, including a new car, for two nubile young Chinese girls. The court said no dice: "We think that appellant has demonstrated that he retains a considerable amount of vigor and ability." Justice, in Arkansas, anyway, comes with a nice waist-to-hip ratio along with the big hair.