When a person is convicted of a crime, there comes the day when they must stand before a judge to learn their fate. There are several steps a person can take to influence the outcome. One important mitigation strategy involves submitting character reference letters to the judge on behalf of the defendant.
Judges hear hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases per year. In a seemingly endless line, defendants are herded through courtrooms like cattle. The trick is to stand out among the herd – to be seen as a person and not as a criminal.
The goal of character reference letters is to tell the judge a story. To give the judge insight into a defendant as a person. Some may said the goal is – to humanize them. These letters can come from family, friends, employers, co-workers, religious leaders, and others. There are some basic rules to follow when crafting character reference letters. Hopefully letters can come from many different circles of people that know the defendant well. Below we’ll discuss some of the “do’s and dont’s” when writing a character letter to a judge in a criminal case.
- DON’T suggest that the defendant is in any way a victim in the case or is innocent. We are assuming that at the time the letter is presented the criminal defendant has been convicted. The letter should express that they are remorseful and accept full responsibility for their actions.
- DON’T suggest a particular sentence or outcome such as,“please give him probation.” Or “justice would not be served by him going to jail.” In an interview with Federal District Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa, he notes,
“I bristle when people tell me what I should do. Tell me how you know the person, what their characteristics are, and then let me decide how that fits into an appropriate sentence.”
- DON’T be too technical. The letter should never cite law, previous cases, or studies. That is the job of the attorney. The letter has one purpose – to tell a unique and personal story by giving a glimpse into defendant’s life as an individual.
- DON’T exceed 1 ½ pages.
- DO type your letter on letterhead if possible
- DO address the judge personally and professionally:
“Dear Honorable Judge Fairness,
Thank you for allowing me to express my support of my longtime friend Dudley DoRight.”
- DO talk about your relationship with the defendant:
Begin with your relationship to the person and how long you have known them. “Dudley and I have been next door neighbors and inseparable friends for more than 20 years.” It is important to acknowledge that you are aware of their legal situation and are supportive of them regardless of the situation.
The letter should express to the Court how you are in a strong and unique position to speak to their character. Judge Bennett goes on to say:
“I give a lot of weight to letters if it’s somebody the person actually knows well, and how long they have known them. I’d much rather have a letter from a street sweeper or a janitor, that has known the individual for ten years or maybe most of their life, than a letter from a State Senator that’s clearly writing it as a favor to the family.”
- DO focus on Character Traits:
This is the meat of the letter. Share any experiences that you have had that demonstrate their positive character traits. Telling a short story will have much more of an impact than simply saying “This is a good person that I care for deeply.” Be very specific about events that give insight into the true nature of the individual.
“During the winter months, like clockwork, I hear Dudley’s snowblower start up in the very early morning hours. Without ever being asked to do so, he begins his routine of clearing the walkways and driveways of all of the elderly neighbors. It takes him hours to complete and he has never asked for anything in return. As if by magic, nearly ten driveways are cleared before most of the neighborhood wakes.” This is just one of many examples of Dudley’s kind and giving heart.”
- DO talk About Changes You’ve Seen:
Tell the Judge about positive actions you’ve observed since the defendant’s arrest, along with meaningful changes that suggest this won’t happen again.
- DO be supportive: In your own words, finalize the letter with a positive, hopeful, and supportive message.
“I consider Dudley one of my most cherished and trustworthy friends. Having known him for more than twenty years, I am confident he will emerge from this a better and stronger man as a result. Regardless of the outcome, I stand ready to support him in any way I can. Thank you for the opportunity to express my thoughts as you consider the appropriate sentence for Mr. DoRight.”
Well crafted character reference letters can be powerful. At the same time, poorly constructed letters can do more damage than good. By following a few simple rules, those in support of the defendant can help influence and sway the judges decision.