You have to wonder what kind of sympathy Katherine and Louis Kealoha are trying to generate with their color-coordinated outfits and hand holding when they show up each day on trial for a series of federal felony counts including conspiracy, obstruction and lying about their alleged attempt to frame Katherine’s uncle for mailbox theft.
Defense attorneys take very seriously the way they prepare their clients to dress for the courtroom. In general, defendants are advised to appear respectful and serious, clad in clothing that is neutral rather than attention provoking, outfits you would wear to church or when applying for a job.
National jury consultant Tara Trask, who advised Oprah Winfrey and the ABC television network in lawsuits, says her best advice for court appearances is to “look good but benign.”
The day they were arrested in October 2017, Louis Kealoha, the former Honolulu police chief, and Katherine, his then-deputy prosecutor wife, seemed to be ignoring that advice to keep a low profile. Instead, they showed up at the courthouse to be read their formal charges waving and blowing kisses and wearing lei.
Louis was wearing faded jeans and a long sleeved aloha shirt and she was dressed in a royal blue pants suit.
Some court watchers interpreted their look as celebratory rather than contrite.
“Appearances are everything,” says Honolulu trial attorney Victor Bakke. “People on a jury pay attention to how a defendant dresses and their body language. You don’t want your client to look down and dirty but you also don’t want them to look like they have gone overboard. I hate it when a client dresses better than me.”
Retired Circuit Court Judge Marie Milks says attorneys have a joke about courtroom overdressing: Looking across a crowded room, someone asks, “Who is that person over there in the three-piece suit?” Answer: “A defendant.”
Milks served for 20 years as a Circuit Court judge, four years on the District Court bench and seven years as a public defender.
As a public defender, she advised her clients to have a neat appearance and not wear bright colors. “You don’t want to do anything that draws attention to the client. You want the jury to focus on the evidence, not on what your client is wearing.”
She says she is speaking about defendants in general, not specifically about the Kealohas.
When the trial began, Louis Kealoha started dressing more formally in suits, but observers noted that each day his shirts were always carefully color-coordinated with Katherine’s dresses. For the first day of the trial they both dressed in navy blue, he in a rose-colored dress shirt, she in a rose blouse. And from then on it was some variant of matching.
Bakke says the Kealohas playing up their localness in their matching Hawaiian attire and demeanor could backfire. “It is drawing attention to them,” he says. “It looks like they are pandering to the jury, playing the race card.”
When the trial started, Katherine had cut her hair and Louis got rid of his ponytail. They both started wearing glasses.
Bakke says glasses are fine if a defendant normally wears glasses. And long-sleeved shirts are a good idea but only if a client is comfortable. “If a defendant is not used to wearing long-sleeved shirts, he might fidget.”
Body language is also important. Fidgeting conveys nervousness or discomfort. Affectionate gestures can also say something.
Attorney Ronnette Kawakami says Louis Kealoha draping his arm over Katherine’s shoulder and their hand holding is to send a message of solidarity and innocence.
Kawakami says the Kealohas’ carefully color-coordinated clothes are another visual way to symbolize that they stand together in innocence.
Kawakami is an associate dean at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law. She is a former senior public defender with the State Office of the Public Defender, who has defended clients in more than 100 felony jury trials.
She thinks the Kealohas’ strategy to win support by their appearance is ineffective and that affectionate gestures will seem contrived. How many married couples take the time each day to match their outfits? Maybe for a special party but not every day. And how many longtime couples hold hands and constantly touch each other?
Retired attorney James Wright says the Kealohas are trying to humanize themselves to look like relatives of people on the jury, an auntie and uncle, not the Kahala power couple who drove around in a Maserati and threw a $24,000 breakfast party in a Waikiki hotel.
It may be that they are also trying to convey optimism. But there is no saying it will work.
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