A Florida court approved an extreme makeover for murder defendant John Ditullio, paying $125 a day for the services of a cosmetologist to cover up tattoos — including a swastika and a crude insult — which Ditullio has gotten since his arrest.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — When John Ditullio goes on trial on Monday, jurors will not see the large swastika tattooed on his neck. Or the crude insult tattooed on the other side of his neck. Or any of the other markings he has acquired since being jailed on charges related to a double stabbing that wounded a woman and killed a teenager in 2006.
Ditullio’s lawyer successfully argued the tattoos could be distracting or prejudicial to the jurors, who under the law are supposed to consider only the facts presented to them.
The court approved the judicial equivalent of an extreme makeover, paying $125 a day for the services of a cosmetologist to cover up the tattoos that Ditullio has gotten since his arrest. This is Ditullio’s second trial for the murder; the first, which also involved the services of a cosmetologist, ended last year in a mistrial. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The case shows some of the challenges lawyers face when trying to get clients ready for trial — whether that means hitting the consignment shop for decent clothes for an impoverished client or telling wealthy clients to leave the bling at home.
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“It’s easier to give someone who looks like you a fair shake,” said Bjorn Brunvand, Ditullio’s lawyer.
“There’s no doubt in my mind — without the makeup being used, there’s no way a jury could look at John and judge him fairly,” Brunvand said in an interview in his office here. “It’s too frightening when you see him with the tattoos. It’s a scary picture.”
Hence the cosmetologist. Chele, the owner of the company performing the work, said the process takes about 45 minutes.
The first stage is a reddish layer to obscure the greenish tinge of the ink — “You cover a color with a color,” she explained. Then comes Dermablend, a cosmetic aid that smoothes and obscures and is used to cover scars and pigmentation disorders like vitiligo. A flesh-toned layer is then sprayed on with an air gun, and finally, to avoid the porcelain-doll look that comes from an even-hued coat, a final color touchup intended to, as theatrical makeup artists say, “put blood back in.”
The cosmetologist asked that she not be identified by her full name out of fear of reprisal and lost business. “We mostly do weddings,” she said.
Colleen Quinn-Adams, a private investigator working on the case with Brunvand, said she had had to call 10 cosmetologists before finding one willing to take on this particular client. “I would either get a long pause, and have to say, ‘Are you still there?’ or, ‘I don’t think we could handle that job.’ “
While the move to pretty up a man accused of murder might seem bizarre, defense lawyers like Brunvand say they fight an uphill battle every day in court: Though the law requires that juries see every defendant as innocent until proved guilty, they say, jurors are generally more likely to see someone who has been arrested as guilty.
Appearance is a big part of setting the right balance, said Anna Durbin, a lawyer in Ardmore, Pa., who often has run to used-clothing stores to find an alternative to the jail jumpsuit for clients without money or family. “You don’t have a clean slate if you look like a perpetrator,” she said.
Douglas Keene, a jury consultant in Austin, Texas, noted that making defendants look more like someone who is “kind of like me” does not just come into play in cases involving violence or poverty. “I counseled defendants during the Enron trial to remove $10,000 watches,” he said.
Charlene Bricken, the mother of the young man Ditullio is accused of killing, Kristofer King, said she was outraged that the defendant would receive a court-approved makeover. “Did somebody tie him down while he was in jail and put these tattoos on him?” she asked angrily.
Bricken said that she had “no doubt” Ditullio was guilty — he sent a taunting Christmas card to the family from prison — and that the judge was “bending over backwards for the criminal.”
Brunvand said the card Ditullio sent Bricken was “a terrible thing” but attributed it to “acting out in frustration” because of feelings that he had been falsely arrested and that “everybody had, in their minds, already convicted him.”
Mike Halkitis, the division director for the state attorney’s office in New Port Richey, where the trial will be held, said that he fought the “absurd” request for a cosmetic cover-up last year, and that taxpayers should not have to pay for it.
Instead, 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.