A Kansas man who is charged with murder asked the court to either remove or cover up his large neck/throat tattoo -- a tattoo of the word MURDER in mirror image (it's art just for him!) in big shaky block letters. Ok, I'll let that sink in for a while.What do you think? Share your thoughts on the Needles & Sins FB group page under this post link.
This isn't a post on bad life choices, however. For me, especially as a lawyer, I'm interested in the issue of justice and what constitutes a "fair trial." According to the Great Bend Tribune, the attorney of Jeffrey Wade Chapman is asserting that there would be no fair trial if a jury were to see that tattoo (a tattoo that was done over a year before the crime he's accused of). The Tribune wrote:
According to the motion filed by defense attorney Kurt Kerns, Wichita, Chapman has asked the jail to allow a professional tattoo artist to remove and/or cover up the tattoo across his neck that is a mirror image of the word "murder" in capital letters. The motion notes it is a large tattoo that cannot be easily hidden with clothing.The State replied that they don't allow tattooists to practice in jails [Kansas Administrative Code 69-15-14 states, "tattoo artists shall not practice at any location other than a licensed facility," which meets specific hygiene standards set by the Kansas Board of Cosmetology.]
And so, today, an agreement was reached that Chapman would wear a turtleneck in court. Problem solved!
But the issue of having prejudicial tattoos on view in a criminal trial has been much more difficult to address when they are facial tattoos -- and there are A LOT of gang/criminal/racist facial tattoos out there.
As I wrote about back in 2009 in my Tattoos as Evidence in Criminal Trials post, a Florida judge granted a motion to have the state pay a cosmetologist $150 a day to cover the Neo-Nazi facial tattoos of a man who was facing the death penalty for murder, stating "the tattoos are potentially offensive and could influence a jury's opinion." Naturally, the act of tax payer money going to a make-up artist to help a racist accused of murder didn't sit well with many people. The NY Times had interesting coverage of that case -- as well as a description of the cover-up process.
For more of discussion on tattoos as evidence, here's a list of cases from my 2009 post:
In Dawson v Delaware, the US Supreme Court said the defendant's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the prosecution admitted his Aryan Brotherhood tattoo into evidence -- the murder he committed wasn't racially motivated and so the hate group association and tattoo were not relevant.
However, in Wood v State, the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Texas ruled that the prosecution did not violate a defendant's First Amendment rights when commenting on his tattoos -- text on each eyelid that said "Lying Eyes." The court said that, unlike the Dawson case, the tattoos were not used to show gang affiliation but "to show his disregard for the truth and his moral character. A person's tattoos can reflect his character and demonstrate a motive for his crime." For interesting commentary on this case, read what Eugene Volokh has to say.
In NY, the state's highest court ruled in 2004 that Nazi tattoos could be used as evidence that a defendant committed a hate crime in The People v. Slavin. In that case, Slavin was tried for luring two Mexican laborers into an abandoned warehouse and killing them. During the trial, to show hate was a motivating factor, the prosecution offered jurors a slideshow of Slavin's tattoos including black swastikas, a white fist and a skinhead kicking a large-nosed man wearing a skullcap. Slavin appealed saying that this violated his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The NY Court of Appeals disagreed saying:
"We conclude that defendant was not "compelled ... to be a witness against himself" within the meaning of the privilege. The tattoos were physical characteristics, not testimony forced from his mouth. However much the tattoos may have reflected defendant's inner thoughts, the People did not compel him to create them in the first place."
Two highly engaging pieces on prison tattoos were published this week:
On Monday, Flavorwire posted a photo gallery of prison tattoos that are part of Araminta de Clermont's Life After series (which includes the image above). Clermont photographed tattooed members of South Africa's Numbers prison gangs after their release. She explores questions of identity and stigma, possession and self-expression, and "how it would be if we all had our past mistakes permanently emblazoned across our faces."
I highly recommend reading Clermont's full discussion of Life After on her gallery page. Here's an excerpt:
Tattoos may convey rankings within the hierarchy of the Number, may be testimonies to a crime committed, or may sometimes be a rather more personal statement: like a message of blame, threat, or regret, or a tribute to a loved one. A 'Numbers' gangster can read another's life story simply through the markings he has. The gallows symbol signifies that the bearer faced the death sentence, before it was outlawed. Many of the most highly tattooed men that I photographed, had been given the death sentence, before Mandela's reprieve, and thus they had never believed they would be released, never imagining 'a life after'.More on the work can be found via this BBC audio slideshow.
Then, yesterday, The Independent and Gambit of New Orleans published an interview by Dege Legg (photos by Travis Gauthier) with Victor "Versus" Sandifer, a prison tattooer who spent 21 years behind bars. In the Q&A, Sandifer discusses how he got into jailhouse tattooing, making a "tattoo gun," and symbolism behind prison tattoo imagery, among other interesting tidbits. Here's a taste from the Gambit:
G: Who were your best customers in prison?
VS: I tattooed everybody: Mexicans, Chinese, white, black, all kinds of people. I did them all.
G: What kind of tattoos would they gravitate toward?
VS: Depends on the race. Black guys want gangster stuff: names, faces, gang affiliations, pictures of dead homies. Stuff that represents where they're from. Mexicans like religious imagery, lowrider and vato stuff. Girls, cars, Virgin Marys, Jesus. White dudes go for anything: dragons, knives, guns, swastikas. All kinds of weird stuff like that. Depends on the white guy you're talking to.
G: Lot of Aryan Brotherhood?
VS: You got a lot of diehard AB'ers out there, but you also got a lot of old-school Southern rockers that just want a ZZ Top tattoo.
G: What's the meaning behind teardrops?
VS: Depends on the state you're in. Some people wear them to count time under their left eye. Under the right, it signifies a dead homeboy. For some it's the number of people they've killed. In Louisiana, it doesn't mean as much--they just wear teardrops to be having them. In Texas, a lot of tattoos are gang related.Read more of the interview here.
In a time when mass media has finally been looking at tattooing as a fine art (reality shows excluded), it's interesting to see their current approach to stigmatized tattooing. They are both great reads. Check 'em.
We've written time and time again about criminals being identified, incarcerated and databased by their often questionable display of tattoos, but this piece I discovered at Gizmodo this morning takes the cake.
They report that 19-year-old Joseph Eric Williams is the mastermind behind a wave of iPhone thefts in South Florida. However, while he's smart enough to pull off a string of tech-thefts, he doesn't appear to have been smart enough to not get an easily-identifiable facial tattoo before entering a life of crime: the words "I'M ME" over his left eye.
In an effort to evade police efforts, he might consider chaning it to read "I'M MEL" - though most American police officers (especially my Jewish brothers and sisters) are champing at the bit to throw a guy named Mel in the slammer.
My personal suggestion for Mr. Williams' potential cover-up, however, would be changing it to read "HI, MOM!" After all, it probably won't be long before we see his face again... on a local Miami-Dade news broadcast while being taken into custody.
And speaking of criminal tattoos...
A collection of 60 tattooed skins (preserved in formaldehyde) taken largely from dead prisoners is the subject of a "photo story" by Katarzyna Mirczak called Preserving the Criminal Code.
According to Mirczak, the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, collected the skins "with a view to deciphering the code - among prisoners known as a 'pattern language'. By looking closely at the prisoners' tattoos, their traits, temper, past, place of residence or the criminal group in which they were involved could be determined."
Read more on the preserved skins and see more images, like the ones, above here.
[Via Morbid Anatomy. Thanks to Samantha of Haute Macabre. And Melina too!]