John Allen Ditullio is a walking billboard for the neo-Nazi movement: a large 6-inch swastika tattooed under his right ear, barbed wire inked down the right side of his face, and an extreme and very personal vulgarity scrawled on one side of his neck.
Jurors will never see any of it. A judge has ruled that the state must pay a cosmetologist up to $150 a day during Ditullio's trial on murder and attempted murder charges and apply makeup to cover up the black ink.
Judge Michael Andrews, acting on a request by Ditullio's lawyer, ruled that the tattoos are potentially offensive and could influence a jury's opinion in the state's death penalty case against the 23-year-old accused of donning a gas mask, breaking into a neighbor's home and stabbing two people, killing one of them.
Since his arrest in the March 26, 2006, crime in this suburban county just north of Tampa, the self-described neo-Nazi has added tattoos to his body that are prominently displayed and not easily concealed. Ditullio doesn't have the money to pay to have the tattoos covered up, said his public defender, Bjorn Brunvand, who was worried that a jury might be biased against his client on the basis of the tattoos alone.
“Whenever someone is facing the death penalty, they should get a fair trial,” Brunvand said. “The jury can judge this case on the facts and the law and not base their decision on being offended.”
Any tattoos Ditullio had before his arrest won't be covered, such as a small cross under his right eye. Earlier this week, he wore a neatly pressed blue shirt and gray slacks yet several tattoos on his hands and wrists were still visible.
As is common with defendants on trial, Ditullio's appearance had been scrubbed clean: his hair was trimmed, and his unruly beard was cut into a neat goatee.
The trial began Tuesday with opening statements. Proceedings are expected to stretch into next week.
Prosecutors allege that Ditullio broke into his neighbor's home and stabbed two people — injuring 44-year-old Patricia Wells, the home's owner, and killing Kristofer King, a 17-year-old visitor and friend of Wells' son.
Wells lived next door to a mobile home that was commonly known as “the Nazi compound,” which had large swastika flags flying on the property, authorities said. Ditullio was arrested at the mobile home after a SWAT standoff.
Authorities called the stabbings a hate crime, and Wells agreed, previously telling local media that she believed Ditullio attacked her because she had a black friend — and because her own son was gay and Ditullio may have mistaken King for her son.
Brunvand said his client is innocent and plans to tell the jury that someone else inside the neo-Nazi compound could have committed the crime.
In 2007, while awaiting trial in the Pasco County Jail, Ditullio was charged with attempted escape; authorities found smuggled saw blades, sheets made into a rope and a hole sawed into the stainless steel toilet inside Ditullio's cell.
A similar case involving a tattoo makeover happened in Laredo, Texas, in 2007, when a teenage assassin for a powerful Mexican drug cartel was charged with murder. Rosalio Reta was charged with murder and wore makeup in the courtroom to cover his facial tattoos; he pleaded guilty to a 40-year sentence before the case actually went to the jury.
Covering tattoos for a trial is rare, said Michael Siegel, professor of law at the University of Florida, especially in a case like this when the content of the tattoos — neo-Nazi symbols — mesh with the facts of the case.
“The defendant did initially make the choice to communicate to the world through the tattoos on his body,” said Siegel. “Now he's asking for protection from his own decisions.”
Siegel said he believes the judge was trying to be “conservative” in his judgment in case the trial results are appealed.
“Judges bend over backwards to be fair,” said Siegel. “It's human nature when you're a judge.”
What doesn't bother Siegel, however, is the fact that taxpayers will foot the bill for the hourlong makeup session each morning before court proceedings begin.
“It's the responsibility of the taxpayers, whether we like it or not, to provide people with a fair trial,” he said. “And it costs a lot of money.”