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Utah court rejects appeal over face tattoos

Posted at 10:38 AM, Nov 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-01 12:38:31-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Court of Appeals has rejected a man's appeal that he was wrongfully convicted because a jury got to see his face and neck tattoos.

Lee Heyen, 45, was sentenced to serve up to life in prison after being convicted by a jury in 2018 for raping two 15-year-old girls. He challenged his conviction claiming that his defense lawyer failed to have his tattoos covered up or, at the very least, instruct the jury not to consider them.

But a three-judge panel at the Utah Court of Appeals dismissed his claims and upheld his rape convictions. The judges said at trial, Heyen wanted to make some of his tattoos a part of his defense (particularly a tattoo on his genitals) while excluding others that related to white supremacist gang affiliations.

"Heyen argues that leaving his face and neck tattoos exposed during trial was unreasonable and that 'there was no reason to allow jurors to see them.' We disagree. There were several obvious reasons for leaving the tattoos uncovered, leading to the conclusion that it was not 'objectively unreasonable' for Counsel to allow the jury to see them," Judge Michele Christiansen Forester wrote in the ruling.

Photos of Heyen showing the tattoos were introduced as evidence and the defense made the tattoo on his genitals a part of his trial.

"In addition, Counsel may have feared that any attempt to conceal (e.g., through cosmetics) the tattoos may have been obvious to the jury and caused the jury to regard Heyen with skepticism, as being untrustworthy, or as literally trying to hide something. Thus, considering the circumstances, it was not unreasonable for Counsel to favor transparency concerning the existence of Heyen’s tattoos when evidence of them would be presented at trial anyway," the ruling states.

"A significant theme of Counsel’s argument at trial was that Heyen’s tattoos made him an easy target for blame from the victims and attack by the prosecution. And the only viable way for Counsel to make this argument was to acknowledge the presence of Heyen’s numerous tattoos. Moreover, Counsel used the tattoo on Heyen’s penis in an effort to discredit the two victims, and Counsel may have thought the jury would have viewed concealing Heyen’s other tattoos as inconsistent."

Read the ruling here: