The Defense Vests

Metro's Public Defender's Office knows clothes don't necessarily make the man, but they can unmake him

Juries are supposed to decide a case on the relevant facts. Is there reasonable doubt with regard to the charge at hand? Has the prosecution proved its arguments? In short, did he or didn't he?

Unfortunately, justice isn't always blind when it comes to fashion matters. If you show up in court with a spiked collar and black leather gloves, you may be perceived as menacing. If you take the stand wearing a tattered T-shirt, you may be considered irresponsible. And if you arrive for an indecent-exposure hearing decked out like Pee-wee Herman, only divine providence can save you.

To balance the scales for those whose apparel throws their chance of a fair trial into peril, the Metro-Dade Public Defender's Office has turned tailor, keeping a closet full of clothes to loan to indigent defendants.

Located within the labyrinthine Public Defender's Office in the Metro Justice Building, the trial-attire collection fills a small closet in a corner of the designated smoking area. The wardrobe, which consists of donations from attorneys, judges, and other legal types, has the appearance of a post-apocalyptic fitting room, jumbling together a half-dozen pairs of jeans and dress pants, a dozen suit coats, assorted ties and shoes, and a substantial array of shirts (both long- and short-sleeve).

The quality of the threads varies. Silk Pierre Cardin shirts hang back-to-back with mustard-hue polyester blazers. But all the garments, dapper and cheesy alike, are office stepchildren. No one seems particularly electrified at the mention of the closet. Certainly, no one is organizing it with any regularity. And no one seems to know how long it has existed (although from the looks of some of the pants, it dates back at least to the early Fifties).

But for a facility in such apparent disrepair, the Justice Through Clothing closet has a venerable reputation. Most of the 150 attorneys in the Public Defender's Office, in fact, readily admit that they've grabbed for garb at one time or another. "Yeah, I've used it," says Assistant Public Defender Leslie Levin. "If I have a client coming from home, I'll ask him to bring something, but sometimes they're coming from jail, and there's no opportunity. So I'll go down to the closet and pick out an outfit. Something clean and simple, that's all."

"When I first came, I used it often," adds Michelle Towbin, another assistant public defender. "I felt very strongly that all my clients should appear in suits at trial. Now I'm not so intent on that. For some of the people, a suit just isn't them."

For women, for instance. But female defendants will find little for them in the Public Defender's closet; an informal search for distaff dress yielded only one pair of high-heel shoes, with the heels chewed at the tips, no less. But Levin says the gender gap doesn't present any problems. "Finding clothes for women just isn't as much of an issue. Fewer women are arrested, and fewer go to trial. Next week, for instance, I have 33 trials scheduled, and all but three are men."

In every enterprise, there are those who go above and beyond the minimally sufficient, and the law-suit racket is no different. According to office lore, a former public defender who has since moved to private practice developed a heightened commitment to wardrobe eugenics, so much so that he maintained a private sartorial stockpile. "He had one of these file cabinets with clothes in them. One drawer with neatly folded shirts, one drawer with neatly folded pants," says Carl Bober, yet another assistant public defender.

Few attorneys have negative words for the equalizing duds. If the office-supplied outfits blunt possible jury bias and redirect the focus to the merits of the case, who could object to them? "Well," says Bober, "once I gave a client a suit and he was pissed because he thought what he had on was better."

Case clothes.

 
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