June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Prosecutor Marcia Clark was playing it sweet. “I hope I haven’t done anything to offend you,” she inquired while questioning an elderly prospective juror during O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995. “Well,” the woman replied tartly, “your skirts are way too short.” Clark laughed, but in that moment Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, working with defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, knew they had an edge. “The jury,” she says, “loved Johnnie’s suits.”

Is there really a connection between a lawyer’s clothing and the outcome of a criminal trial? Dimitrius and many legal experts say yes—that among other things, hemlines can make a difference. One of the nation’s foremost jury consultants, Dimitrius, 44, has spent the last 15 years helping lawyers choose jurors in big-time trials like those of Simpson and serial killer Richard “the Night Stalker” Ramirez. Now she is sharing her insights in a new book, Reading People (Random House), coauthored with San Diego lawyer—and current beau—Mark Mazzarella. “I’ve sized up thousands of prospective jurors, witnesses, lawyers and even judges,” she says. “It’s all applicable to real life. You can’t assume that a person who walks through the door is exactly as they appear.”

During Simpson’s trial the challenge for Dimitrius was to discern which of the 358 potential jurors would be most sympathetic to his plea of innocence. Some observers assumed African-Americans in general would be, but “any number of the African-American females we interviewed thought he was guilty,” she says. “We needed jurors who did not buy into the fact that you can go from spouse abuse to murder as a logical conclusion.”

And a wise counsel should pay attention to the little tics that can emphasize or even contradict a person’s words: the too-quick smile indicating nervousness, the wriggling and blinking that can reveal a lie, the puffed-up demeanor of the arrogant. “If you pay attention to someone’s appearance and listen to how they ask and respond to questions, you can get a sense of who they are,” she says.

It is a skill that Dimitrius admits she hasn’t always applied in her personal life. Undergoing a divorce from Ralli Dimitrius, a private-school owner, Dimitrius says her failed marriage, among other things, helped her realize “I should practice what I was preaching.”

Raised in Glendale, Calif., the first of three daughters of patent-lawyer Harlan Huebner, now deceased, and his wife, Joan, a retired school-teacher, Dimitrius was married in 1977 and had three children—now 19, 16 and 14—before earning a Ph.D. in criminal justice in 1984. First hired by an accused child rapist and murderer who had read about her jury-selection theories (he was later convicted), Dimitrius soon launched a profitable career in a controversial field. “The purpose of a jury isn’t to gain advantage for one side or another,” comments Stephen Adler, who criticizes the new breed of consultants in his book The Jury. “Juries are supposed to be a cross-section of the community.”

Dimitrius agrees but says it does not happen. “People rarely get juries of their peers—just people who can afford to serve.” And she has no misgivings about her work in the Simpson case. Though Dimitrius doesn’t expect to see all of the $500,000 her firm charged him, the trial “gave me an international reputation.” And another victory in her quest to remedy what she calls a widespread bias against defendants. “I truly believe that 80 percent of the people who walk in believe you’re guilty just for being arrested,” she says. “All I do is even the playing field.”

Peter Ames Carlin

John Hannah in Los Angeles

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