Importance of Character Letters for Sentencing

It is difficult to say how important character letters are to judges. Moreover, the importance of character letters differs from judge to judge and from case to case. Nevertheless, what we generally tell our clients is that well written character letters never hurt.

We believe that letters from various sources can prove helpful, such as letters from family members, friends, business colleagues, clergy members, etc…. As a loose guide to those who might write letters, we generally recommend the following outline.

I. Relationship:

a. In what capacity do you know the Defendant? (i.e. relative, friend, spouse)

b. How long have you known him?

c. Feelings for the Defendant (Important to show love, friendship, respect)

II. General statement of support:

a. Do you understand the trouble the Defendant is in?

b. Have you talked with him about his trouble?

c. Are you able to help him in any way? (Place to live, job, other support)

III. Statement on character:

a. What good things can you say about the Defendant?

b. Mention character traits (honesty, courage, love, etc. and examples)

c. Offer any personal experiences or insights that may help the Judge understand the Defendant’s true character.

IV. Conclusion:

a. Express to Judge in your own words how the Defendant knows he has done wrong, regrets doing what he did, and wants to go forward with his life.

We suggest that the letters be addressed to the sentencing judge but that the letters be sent to us first and that we receive them at least three weeks prior to sentencing. This serves several purposes. First, we can screen the letters and make sure they are appropriate and helpful. Second, we can bind the letters together so the judge will get them in one packet. Third, for federal court sentencing, we will often take snippets of various letters and add them to a sentencing memorandum.

In several cases, we have received 30+ letters on behalf of clients. We put the letters together with a Table of Contents and bound them for the sentencing judge. Also, as noted above, we prepared sentencing memorandums that are quoted from the letters. In many of these cases, the judges were notably impressed with the clients support from his or her family and the community and we do believe they made a difference at sentencing.

Again, this is not to say that character letters make a difference in all cases. However, they can be part of a well-organized sentencing presentation. Anybody that is facing sentencing, especially in federal court, should discuss the role of character letters with their attorney well in advance of sentencing.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.