Owen Labrie and the ‘nerd defense’

Former St. Paul's School student Owen Labrie during his testimony on Wednesday.
Former St. Paul's School student Owen Labrie testifies in his trial. –Charles Krupa/AP

In Owen Labrie’s mug shot, his hair is flipped up stylishly as piercing green eyes peer into the camera. But in court this week, the former St. Paul’s School student has worn a neat sports coat, combed his hair, and hidden his eyes behind a pair of black-framed glasses.

Owen Labrie was charged with three counts of felonious sexual assault.

The glasses aren’t just to help with vision. Legal experts said wearing frames are part of the regular, tried-and-true strategy of making a defendant look more sympathetic for a jury trial.

“It’s part and parcel with wearing a coat and tie,’’ says Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk University Law School professor teaching criminal law. “[Glasses] suggest that someone is intelligent, thoughtful, [and you can] extrapolate from there to sensitive, gentle.’’

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Labrie, 19, is accused of sexually assaulting a then-15-year-old girl in the final days of his career at the prestigious prep school.

The importance of defendants wearing glasses is nothing new: The New York Daily News picked up on the “nerd defense’’ back in 2011, citing defense attorneys in the Bronx. During her 2013 murder trial, Jodi Arias memorably wore glasses while on the stand. (She later sold them in an online auction.)

The glasses, and the physical appearance writ large, are important qualities to emphasize in a case of sexual assault, particularly one in which a jury has to reach the all-important decision of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Cavallaro said.

“We ask the jury to evaluate people’s demeanor, and that word is a catchall for all these things,’’ she said. “[Jurors] pick up everything, including wearing glasses, a nice sports coat, or holding head up when speaking.’’

Phil Tracy, a Boston-area attorney who has followed the case, said appearance and body language are always vital in convincing a jury of innocence.

“Those things are important,’’ Tracy said. “If you don’t care, the jury won’t care.’’

That emphasis isn’t necessarily good, Cavallaro said, and noted that jurors will often consider the wrong question when evaluating a case.

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“[Jurors may ask,] ‘Is this the kind of person who would do this particular thing?’’’ Cavallaro said. “That’s not really what they should be deciding. They should be asking, ‘Did he do this?’’’

In any case, Cavallaro said Labrie’s hair was the more important physical attribute.

“His hair is this out-of-control cactus,’’ she said. “Is it Kennedy-esque? I don’t know, but it’s unruly.’’

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