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Sentences in federal criminal cases – whether they are a result of a plea or a verdict – are set by the judge. Character letters, which are also known as “sentencing letters,” are written by the defendant’s friends and family members in an effort to convince the judge to assess a lower sentence. These are a mainstay of federal criminal cases. This is because most federal judges limit the number of live witnesses, but will receive and review almost any number of support or character letters.
The goal of a character letter is to cast the defendant in the most favorable light possible. A character letter to a judge should establish your credibility, paint a full picture of the defendant and be respectful, among other things. Here’s nine tips for writing the most persuasive character letter possible.
First, the author of the letter should tell the judge how they know the defendant. Use the first paragraph to build credibility and answer the following questions:
The biggest mistake a letter writer can make is to either detract from the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility or the jury’s verdict. Avoid phrases like “this is not like him” or “he pleaded guilty to get a better sentence and not because he was guilty.” Instead, this paragraph should include something along the lines of:
You can even add something along the lines of, “I know the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, although not mandatory, provide the court with recommendations, and I realize how significant the possible sentence could be. I hope that you will find ____’s life and work to warrant a low sentence.”
You have established how you know the defendant and you’ve expressed respect for the court and the sentencing process. Now comes the most important part: What are you going to tell the judge that will stand out in his or her mind? How do you convey that the defendant is much more than a “defendant?”
The best way to do this is to tell a story about the defendant. Give specific examples. For example, instead of saying the defendant is generous and kind-hearted, give the judge an example of an instance when the defendant showed these attributes. Instead of saying the defendant is the sole provider for this family, give detailed examples of how the defendant legitimately provided for his family in the past.
Always keep in mind the picture you are painting for the judge and use the character letters strategically to paint that picture completely. For example, consider using one family member, one professional connection, and one from a church or civic organization as a bare minimum.
Remember the judge will have judicial clerks who will have time to verify any letters the judge wishes to have verified. Always include an address block with your letter, in the following format:
Providing the court with your contact information will make the letter easily verifiable, should the court wish to do so.
Every court is going to have different filing requirements. All the letters should be sent to the defense attorney and not the court directly. Most courts will accept letters on 8.5 x 11 standard letter-sized paper. Most courts will accept copies of electronically delivered letters, but be sure to check with the attorney first. Remember that judges read hundreds of letters. The easier you make it for the judge to read, the most likely the judge will be able to focus on the message you are trying to convey. For most people, a typed letter is more legible than a handwritten one. You can always add a personal touch by delivering a letter with an ink signature on the letter – but remember some judges will only see the scanned electronic copy of the letter. Letters from young children are an exception – where the handwriting may actually make the letter more powerful – the judge will know the letter came directly from the child.
You can address the judge to “The Honorable First Name Last Name” or “Judge First Name Last Name” or “Judge Last Name.” It is redundant to say “Honorable Judge” so use either “Judge” or “Honorable.”
While you can include identifiers like the Court’s address, the reference line, the case number etc, the reality is that all the letters should be delivered the defense attorney. The attorney, in turn, will make sure the letter get to the court and filed into the correct case.
Most federal defendants are not going to be eligible for probation. Check with the defense attorney before making statements like “nothing good can be accomplished by sending ______ to prison.” Instead, end your letter with the same credibility you built at the beginning of the letter by making a reasonable request – whether that is asking for a minimum sentence or even a sentence under the recommended guideline range.