The way you appear and behave in the courtroom can affect how others see you. And some opinions are crucial.
Most defendants are understandably nervous and insecure when inside a courtroom. Family and friends trying to help a loved one cope with criminal charges are also likely to be confused and overwhelmed by the experience. The best way to cope is to prepare.
Attorneys almost always advise their clients on how to dress for court appearances. Without such advice, defendants should simply plan on dressing as if they are going to an interview for a professional job. This usually means suits or conservative business attire.
Most courts have dress codes, too. To start, these codes usually prohibit hats (except for religious purposes), shorts, tank tops, and bare feet. In general, it’s better to overdress than underdress. If nothing else, the jury and judge may perceive the defendant’s effort to look nice as respect for the system.
The same is true for family and friends of the defendant. Seeing appropriately dressed family and friends out in numbers to support the defendant may have a conscious or subconscious impact on the jury, judge, or prosecutor (for purposes like plea bargaining).
Defendants should go out of their way to be courteous to everyone, especially court personnel, and even when court isn't in session. That said, it’s usually improper to engage people like prosecutors, witnesses (including police officers), and especially victims in conversation. (Depending on the circumstances, it might even be illegal to approach or talk to a witness or victim.) As with everything else, follow your lawyer’s lead.
Judges, clerks, prosecutors, and even defense lawyers are so used to dealing with defendants who are rude or simply don’t care that politeness can go a long way. Even such simple actions as saying “please” and “thank you” and showing up on time may make a difference. (Showing up on time is always a must.)
Addressing the Judge
There are certain times when represented defendants must talk directly to the judge—for example, when entering a plea or (sometimes) during sentencing. (See Should criminal defendants speak in court?) The most important thing for a defendant to remember in these situations is to be polite and, if appropriate, show genuine remorse. (See Mitigating Circumstances in Sentencing.)
In addition, it is critical to follow some basic rules and customs, among them the following:
- Stand when addressing the judge. Those unable to stand for medical reasons should mention that to the judge at the outset to avoid the perception of disrespect.
- Call the judge “Your Honor”—not “Judge,” not “Sir,” and especially not “Ma’am.”
- Speak slowly and clearly, and directly into the microphone (if there is one). If there isn’t a microphone, project so that the judge, attorneys, and court reporter can hear easily. (On the other hand, don’t yell.)
- Speak only when asked to and, if possible, only after getting a go-ahead or guidance from your attorney as to what to say. Be careful to wait until counsel and the judge finish before speaking. (Before court, go over with your attorney how you should handle prompts to speak. For example, your lawyer might tell you not to look to her for direction when the judge asks you certain kinds of questions.)
- Keep your emotions in check. Even if you don’t say anything audible, angry expressions, emotional gestures, and the like can be disastrous, even when you’re not addressing the judge. Likewise, laughing or appearing smug or nonchalant are to be avoided at all costs. In short, behave appropriately to the situation.
Care When Talking
Inside a courtroom, defendants obviously shouldn’t discuss their cases with witnesses, reporters, family members, or anyone else other than their lawyers. Defendants should take special care not to say anything, even to their lawyers, in public places like bathrooms and elevators, where they may be overheard. They even need to be mindful of not letting others hear what they say to their attorneys in the courtroom and at counsel table. (See The Attorney-Client Privilege.) In that vein, it may be appropriate at times to quietly confer with counsel while court is in session, but defendants must remember to be respectful and engaged in the proceedings.