Creating a character-reference letter campaign begins with a strategy. As we learned in the previous module, judges do not want to receive volumes of character-reference letters. Nor do they want to receive letters from celebrity types, or influencers. Those tactics may work in some marketing campaigns. But preparing for sentencing is a different matter entirely.
Create a methodical plan to get the right number of character-reference letters, from the right people.
The sentencing judges with whom our team has spoken want to learn as much as possible about the individual. Judges are more inclined to grant leniency, or mercy, at sentencing when the defendant takes efforts to show more about:
- How they identify with victims.
- What they’ve learned from the crime?
- What steps they’ve taken to make things right?
- What level of remorse they’ve shown?
To get the best possible outcome at sentencing, develop a strategy. A character-reference campaign should begin with considerations that include thoughts about:
- What is the nature of the offense?
- In what ways can you build a storyline that will counter accusations, showing an alternative perspective of character from what the prosecutor will present?
- What would be the ideal number of letters to submit?
- How likely are you to find people that will write effective character-reference letters?
- What stories could others tell that would show you’re worthy of mercy?
In this module, we’re going to address the importance of each topic above. Let’s start with the nature of the offense.
- Offenses that involve fraud, deceit, or abuse of trust
- Offenses that involve drugs
- Offenses that involve sexual misconduct
- Offenses that involve violence
- Offenses that involve theft
Each type of crime has a unique characteristic. In creating a character-letter campaign, a defendant should contemplate how the accusation itself will influence a judge. We know that the judge will know about the criminal allegation, and we know that the judge will have had a view of the evidence.
What impression with those “facts” make on the judge about the individual’s character?
All defendants should consider the specific type of offense. The character-reference campaign should coincide with a mitigation strategy that addresses the underlying impressions that accompany the specific offense.
- For crimes that involve abuse of trust or deceit, focus on character-reference letters that counter such allegations.
- For crimes involving drugs, perhaps character-reference letters that reveal more about background or treatment for addiction.
- For crimes of sexual nature, perhaps letters from mental-health professionals may help.
- For crimes of violence, a defendant may want letters that reveal more about trauma and family influences.
In our work, we frequently encounter defendants that plead guilty to crimes for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes they do not agree with the “facts” presented by the prosecution. Yet for personal reasons, they choose to plead guilty. Pleading guilty may lessen their exposure to an unacceptably long sentence. It may spare the prosecution of a family member, or someone else. A guilty plea may be more prudent than enduring the exorbitant expense or other costs associated with a trial. Some people plead guilty for reasons other than facts.
Regardless of the reason behind a verdict of guilt, a sentencing judge will consider “facts” of the conviction. And the defendant should be thinking about how those facts will influence the judge’s perceptions of the individual’s character. The goal of a character-reference campaign should be to overcome judicial bias (predicated on the nature of the offense) about the defendant.
Letters should come from people that will help the judge see the individual rather than the defendant.
Judge Patrick Schiltz, of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said that he considered it most difficult to sentence people that have been convicted of white-collar offenders. He referred to them as “con men who prey on vulnerable victims.”
Judge Schiltz said that a defendant would advance prospects for overcoming such perceptions if he could show that he was not a con artist at heart, that he was not a psychopath or sociopath. If there was a mental illness that contributed to the commission of the crime, the judge said he would want to know about it.
Defendants should strive to generate character-reference letters that would be most effective for the particular type of crime. And always remember that the primary audience is a judge that has a vast amount of experience in judging sincerity.
A character-reference letter loses credibility if the writer tries to minimize the offense conduct. Judges may feel the writer is being manipulative. As Judge Otis D. Wright II of the Central District of California put it:
Once we agree as to what the defendant did and how the victims have been affected by the crime, there is more credibility.
Keep trust and credibility at the forefront of the character-reference letter strategy.
To build credibility, a defendant will want to be honest with those whom he asks to write a character-reference letter. The judge wants to know that the defendant has introspected. If the person writing the character-reference letter includes language showing that the defendant accepts responsibility and is making amends to society—and to his victims—the judge may soften his perspective of the defendant. When defendants open themselves up to loved ones, speaking honestly about what they’ve done and what they’re doing to make things right, the judge may feel more confident in knowing about the defendant’s remorse.
Writers of character-reference letters help the defendant when they express that they know what the defendant has done since being apprehended.
Judge Jon Levy, from the District of Maine, in Portland, said defendants can reveal more about their character through the record they built after the arrest. If someone writes a character-reference letter that includes language validating the defendant’s sense of responsibility after the criminal charge, the judge may be more inclined to find the defendant credible.
Another excellent character-reference would be an employer that indicated he fully understood the defendant’s crime, especially if the employer indicated that he would hire the defendant again when he is available to work. Such a statement shows the judge that people who know the defendant best truly believe in his capacity to do good for society.
Judge Jed Rakoff, of the Southern District of New York, discouraged defendants from submitting too many character-reference letters. He wants to read letters that reveal the defendant’s good deeds that would otherwise be unknown. For example, the judge mentioned that he appreciates stories about how a defendant did something for another person without any thoughts of obtaining a benefit in return.
Defendants that have been accused of a crime that involves substance abuse, sexual misconduct, or mental illness should consider seeking help from a mental health professional. If the mental-health professional treats the individual for a prolonged length of time, and the character-reference letter indicates that the defendant’s sincere desire to resolve the underlying illness, judges take notice.
Essentially, judges appreciate opportunities to gain additional insight into a defendant’s life. A character-reference letter provides that in-sight—from a third-party’s perspective. They’re like testimonials. Such letters can become a significant factor in the judge’s deliberations over the appropriate sentence.
In summary, a defendant would serve himself well by contemplating the roster of people that should receive a request for a character-reference letter. Consider the nature of the crime, and then go after people that could write a supportive letter that is consistent with the mitigation strategy.
Obviously, writers of the character-reference letter should know the defendant well. But that doesn’t mean the writer needs to have a lifelong relationship with the defendant. Different people can serve different purposes in the character-reference letter campaign. For example:
- Parent or Sibling:
- Capable of providing real insight with regard to the defendant’s background and influences.
- Spouse or Child:
- Capable of providing details about how the defendant contributes to the strength of the family.
- Capable of providing details about the defendant’s work ethic and contributions.
- Mental-health Professional:
- Capable of providing details about the defendant’s commitment to treating underlying illness that may have contributed to crime.
- Community-Service Leader:
- Capable of providing details about the defendant’s commitment to the lives of others.
- Capable of providing details about the defendant’s efforts toward self-improvement.
- Coach / teammate:
- Capable of providing details about the defendant’s commitment to teamwork or leadership.
- Capable of providing insight into the defendant’s personal attributes.
- Capable of providing insight into the defendant’s commitment to faith.
- Business partner
- Capable of providing insight into the defendant’s ethics or trust-worthiness.
As shown from the 10 samples above, a defendant can ask a wise selection of people to write a character-reference letter. Those letters should come from people that know the individual best. It would be best if each letter included a personal story that would leave a lasting impression upon the judge—that story should show a positive attribute of the defendant.
Character-reference letters serve the defendant best when the writer shows:
- The defendant understands that the crime created victims.
- That the defendant has been honest about what he has learned from the experience.
- That the defendant revealed steps he is taking to make things right.
- That the defendant is remorseful.
The following module will offer suggestions on how to approach people for a character-reference letter during tough times.