Jeremy Meeks is a convicted felon, an alleged gang member and is currently being held in jail on more felony weapons charges. Bail has been set at $1,000,000.
That’s not a typical biography for an internet celebrity.
Yet, Meeks has a Facebook page with over 120,000 fans. His mother started a fundraising page that’s attracted 145 donations and over $2500 in one day. And the hashtag #FreeJeremyMeeks is trending on Twitter.
The positive feelings are all related to his “handsome” mug shot, which was posted by the Stockton Police Department on Facebook this week, and quickly became a sensation. It is a stunning example of how the American criminal justice system — in which defendants have the right to be judged by a jury of their peers — is often influenced by superficial attributes.
Meeks’ experience is due to a type of cognitive bias known as “the halo effect.” This refers to the tendency to “view others holistically, that is, as all good or all bad.” In forming our overall opinion people are “highly influenced by first impressions” and when “we see a person first in a good light, it is difficult subsequently to darken that light.” This is why, for example, companies pay “beautiful actresses to promote products about which they have absolutely no expertise.” It is also why, once someone sees a mug shot of Meeks and concludes he’s attractive, it’s hard to also believe he’s guilty of a crime.
A 1975 study found “unless they have used their attractiveness to commit a crime (for example, a swindle), good-looking people are likely to receive highly favorable treatment in the legal system.” For participants in the study, “When the crime was unrelated to attractiveness (burglary), subjects would assign more lenient sentences to the attractive defendant than to the unattractive defendant.” A more recent UK study found “attractive suspects were more likely to be acquitted, despite there being no extra evidence in their favor.”
So Meeks’ good looks have not only resulted in some money for his criminal defense and a bit of celebrity, but it will also make it more likely he receives an acquittal or more lenient punishment if his case goes to trial.