I’m not going to pile on Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over his recent arrest on felony charges of securities fraud. Innocent until proven guilty and all that. But I would like to take this opportunity to discuss something I’ve never quite figured out: What’s the best facial expression to pose with in your mug shot?
This is a tricky question. This photo is, potentially, going to appear in the newspaper and on the evening news, where it will likely be seen by potential jurors in your eventual trial. You don’t want to come across looking guilty, but then, if you wind up getting convicted, you don’t want to appear glib or remorseless either.
Here are the mugshots of Paxton, of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (from his 2005 arrest on charges of money laundering and conspiracy), and of David Bowie (from his 1976 arrest in Rochester, N.Y., for possession of marijuana).
Paxton opts for a contemptuous smirk — an expression that seems intended to convey a dismissive attitude toward what he regards as unserious charges. I’m not sure that plays well with potential future jurors. It also seems to express his disdain and disrespect for the entire justice system, and that seems inappropriate for a man who is also his state’s top law-enforcement official. (Again, let’s be clear, at this point Paxton is only an accused and alleged felon.)
Tom Delay’s photo displays a cheerful smile that would be terrific in, say, a yearbook headshot or a driver’s license ID. Heck, most people don’t have that big an enthusiastic grin in their wedding photos. Again, this might be read poorly by future jurors — especially around sentencing time, if it comes to that, when they may see it as evidence of a lack of remorse.
That’s the difficult balancing act here: Look straightforwardly remorseful and people may assume you’re guilty. But look completely remorseless and they’ll also likely assume you’re guilty.
So maybe the best approach is to follow David Bowie’s lead and adopt a kind of stoic, blank look. Bowie looks fabulous there, but then I’m not sure we can learn anything from that, because when doesn’t he?
So let’s consider another set of famous mugshots. Here are Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were arrested, repeatedly, for being criminally awesome.
I think these might provide a demonstration of the best possible expression for a mugshot — a look of serene confidence that you are on the side of justice and that no trial, no court, no earthly authority, can challenge the unassailable rightness of your cause.
Alas, such confident serenity probably only comes from having been arrested while in prophetic pursuit of justice and righteousness — so that expression may not be an available option for everyone at the time of their booking. Trying to fake that look without having earned it will likely result in something like the cocky smirk we see on Paxton’s face up there at the top.
Ultimately, I think, the best you can hope for is that whatever expression you make in your mugshot won’t easily be used against you. You’ve been arrested, so you’re up against a system that includes many powerful people who are now determined to prove you guilty. Any emotion you show — cheer, sadness, fear, anger, frustration, stoicism — is bound to be used against you as supposed evidence of that supposed guilt. So I doubt there’s any right answer to the question of the best expression to make in your mugshot.
But there probably are some choices that are more wrong than others — and I think Ken Paxton has just added to our hall of fame of such bad choices.