Character Letter for a Judge: Tips and Template

How to Write a Character Letter for a Judge

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. 

character letter for a judge generator
Be sure to check out our Character Letter Generator if you have writer’s block or just don’t know where to get started.

Why Write a Character Letter

Character letters can play a significant role in criminal cases. They may be used to impress prosecutors to offer a better outcome. They are also used in some sentencing phases – especially where the judge provides a limited time for live witnesses.

write a compelling character letter

What Makes a Character Letter for a Court Effective?

A character letter’s effectiveness relies on its quality and ability to offer a more comprehensive understanding of the defendant. The following tips from our seasoned criminal defense attorney can aid your loved ones in crafting compelling character letters in support of you.

What is the Goal of a Sentencing Letter? 

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 are nine tips for writing the most persuasive character letter possible. 

To effect that goal, the primary objective should be to establish your credibility as a reference for the defendant. The letter should then describe the defendant to help the judge gain a deeper understanding of the individual beyond the crime committed. Lastly, the letter should be respectful and not undermine the defendant’s case. The following guidelines can assist in composing a persuasive character letter.


Tip 1 for a Character Letter: Establish Credibility 

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: 

    1. How long have you known the person?
    2. How did you come to know the person – professionally, family, as a community member, etc?
    3. If you know the person professionally, this is a good place to add your position or role that allowed you to get to know the defendant.

A character letter should come from from individuals who genuinely know the defendant. Generic character letters lack persuasive power. Writers should begin their letter by discussing the duration and nature of their relationship with the defendant. If the relationship is professional, the opening paragraph can clarify this connection. Your letter will carry more weight if you detail the basis of your impression of the defendant, such as working together for several years or knowing each other since childhood.

Tip 2 for a Character Letter: Avoid Landmines 

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:


  • I respect a jury has found _____ guilty of __________. I am writing to offer a more complete picture of who ________ is.
  • I know ___________ has pleaded guilty to ___________. I am writing to offer a glimpse of who _____ is, and that is someone who is far more than the offense he/she pled guilty to. 


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.”

Importantly, there is no need to disregard the fact that the defendant has committed a crime. Since your letter will likely be used during a sentencing hearing, it should not attempt to assert the defendant’s innocence. If you are disappointed in the defendant, you can express that. It is crucial for the judge to know that the defendant has people in their life who will hold them accountable and be honest with them about their mistakes. You should not request a specific sentence from the judge without first consulting the defendant’s attorney.

It is often tempting for writers to argue the defendant’s innocence, claim that the situation is out of character, state that the defendant only pleaded guilty for a better sentence, or even suggest that the jury made a mistake. Such statements will not benefit the defendant and might even harm their case.

avoid landlines

Tip 3 for a Character Letter: Tell a Story

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.

Consider what distinguishes your friend, family member, or coworker from simply being a “defendant,” and how to communicate that to the court. This approach can potentially affect the judge’s decision and contribute to a more favorable outcome.

When writing, avoid merely describing the defendant with phrases like “he is loyal.” Instead, narrate a story demonstrating his loyalty or his upstanding role in the community. A story will resonate with the judge more than adjectives, making your letter more impactful.

Character Letter for a Judge: Tips and Template

Tip 4 for a Character Letter for a Judge: Paint the Full Picture

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. 

paint a complete picture

After establishing your relationship with the defendant, provide your candid opinion about their character. You may discuss the defendant’s upbringing, challenges faced, work history, family role, relationships with family members, health issues, substance abuse, available support structures upon release, or future plans. You may also mention the defendant’s remorse and whether you believe they will re-offend.

Tip 5 for a Character Letter: Always Include Verifiable Information

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:


Mailing Address 

Phone Number 

Email Address

Providing the court with your contact information will make the letter easily verifiable, should the court wish to do so. 

verifiable information

Tip 6 for a Character Letter: Check with the Attorney 

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.

letters to the judge

Tip 7 for a Character Letter: How to Address the Judge 

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.” 

how to address the judge

Tip 8: Don’t Worry about the Reference Line or Court’s Address

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 to the defense attorney. The attorney, in turn, will make sure the letter gets to the court and is filed into the correct case. 

re line for letter to the judge

Tip 9 for a Character Letter for the Judge: Know Your Ask

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.

whats the right ask

Character Letter Template

format for a character letter to the judge

[Use the character letter generator at the bottom of this article to get started with a rough draft or to use it as a template for a character letter.]
Generally, letters should be typed on standard 8.5 by 11-inch paper. The primary goal is to encourage the court to read your letter, so making it easy to read is essential. The only exception is if the letter is written by a child; in that case, a handwritten letter may be more impactful.

Curious how our attorneys can help you reach your goals in a federal criminal case? Call us today at (817) 203-2220.

Character Letter for a Judge: Tips and Template


character letter template

Character Letter Generator 

Are you struggling to write a character letter? Use the following set of questions to generate a rough draft for a character letter. 

Character Letter Generator
Tips for writing a character letter for a judge

Call for a Free Consultation

(817) 203-2220

Contact Us Online:

On this Page:

About the Author Board Certified Lawyer Benson Varghese

About the Author

Benson Varghese is the managing partner of Varghese Summersett. He is a seasoned attorney, highly esteemed for his comprehensive knowledge and expertise in the field. He has successfully handled thousands of state and federal cases, ranging from misdemeanor driving while intoxicated cases to capital offenses, showcasing his commitment to preserving justice and upholding the rights of his clients. His firm covers criminal defense, personal injury, and family law matters. Benson is also a legal tech entrepreneur. Benson is a go-to authority in the legal community, known for his ability to explain complex legal concepts with clarity and precision. His writings offer a wealth of in-depth legal insights, reflecting his extensive experience and his passion for the law. Not only is Benson an accomplished litigator, but he is also a dedicated advocate for his clients, consistently striving to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. His authorship provides readers with valuable legal advice and an understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system. CriminalPersonal InjuryFamily Law Contact