A Few Steps to Writing a Great Character Letter

Writing a great character letter for sentencing is easy if you follow a few simple rules.

When someone is in a position of being sentenced for a misdemeanor or felony offense, a great character letter for sentencing is often very helpful. Letters from people that know or work with the defendant can carry a substantial amount of weight with the Judge who will be determining the sentence. A letter will stand out if the author knows the defendant well, and the letter is credible and personal. The most influential letters will be concise, typed, and dated. Additionally, a character letter must be signed and contain the address and phone number or email address of the author. If there is no name or contact information, the origins of the letter will be questionable.

Avoid Generalities. Make the Person’s Character Come to Life with Personal Examples

General comments like “hard-working, energetic, loyal, or generous” carry little impact if not backed up by objective facts. Anyone can say someone has great qualities but to paint a credible picture, one or two brief examples are necessary. Letters that give examples and demonstrate commendable character traits will be more persuasive. Use examples, illustrations, and stories from your relationship with the person to help the sentencing judge learn about the “real” person. As examples: “She volunteers her time with underprivileged children teaching them to read.” “A few years ago, I recall she bought a sandwich for a child in line at McDonald’s that didn’t have enough money to pay his bill.” These are examples of things that can bring the person you are writing about to life and have an impact on the sentencing Court. Although brevity is important, enough details must be provided to help the judge appreciate the defendant’s good character traits.

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Make the Character Letter Attractive, Respectful, and Easy to Read

If you are writing the character or sentencing letter to a Court, address the letter to “The Honorable John Smith” or “Judge Smith.” The body of the letter should start with “Dear Judge Smith.” You should type the letter if possible. If the letter is from a professional or work associate, it should be on letterhead, if possible. The letter should include the author’s name, address, and telephone number. It should be no longer than one page and should be signed. When writing your letter, be sure to include how long you have known the defendant, when you met and the nature of the relationship. Also, include that you are aware he/she is convicted of the specific crime. If you do not mention that you are aware of the offense, it will look as though the defendant hid it from you and is not taking responsibility. You want the judge to know that you are writing the letter and supporting the defendant, even knowing what he or she has done.

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Send the letters ONLY TO THE DEFENSE ATTORNEY. Do not send the letters directly to the judge, the court, the prosecutor, or anyone else. The defense lawyer will provide the letters to the court in the appropriate and best way. Providing a letter the day before the sentencing hearing or on the day of the court hearing is not helpful and will probably mean that your letter will not be read or, worse, it will irritate the judge.

If the Defendant Plead Guilty or No Contest

Send the Letters to the Defense Attorney as Soon as Possible

Along with the personal examples discussed above, the letter should include that the person has expressed remorse for what they have done or suffered anxiety as a result of being charged with a crime. Instead of being generic, write how you observed or know these statements to be true. As an example, “he talks about how sorry he is for what happened every time I see him.” If you are aware of any personal circumstances or hardships that may have contributed to the commission of the crime, you should include this information in the letter. However, avoid being sensational or exaggerating. Be careful not to shift the blame to something or someone else. You can include the defendant’s problems or hardships, but do not be melodramatic or paint the defendant as the victim. The court will have an adverse reaction to any attempt to shift the blame.

If the Defendant was Convicted at Trial and Maintains a Claim of Innocence

Writing a persuasive letter for a defendant plead not guilty and was convicted at trial is challenging. In these cases, it is often best to avoid reference to the charges and the victim (if there is one). Judges loathe attacks on victims following a trial. Even though a defendant may be innocent and a victim may not really be a “victim,” upsetting the judge is not an effective approach to achieving a favorable sentence. If you disagree with the verdict, you can state your opinion but keep it simple and avoid attacks on the prosecution, the police, and the complainant (if there is one). Try to make the focus of letters in these cases on the defendant and that he or she is a good person who is loved and supported. Tell the judge about the good things that the person has done. You can talk about the defendant’s family and the hardship that will result in the event of an overly stiff sentence. You can also address the hardship a jail or prison sentence will cause the defendant, but proceed cautiously as the court may not appreciate the defendant’s situation being unrealistically dramatized. Be sincere, not melodramatic.

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If the Defendant’s Driver’s License is an Issue

If the offense you are writing about has a driver’s license sanction that is within the discretion of the judge, include any difficulties you know will be suffered by the person because of the loss of driving privileges. If you are aware of any employment consequences, such as job loss as a result of driver license problems, they should be included in the letter as well. The sentencing judge should know the entire situation and the background of the person being sentenced. Be realistic when discussing the impact on the defendant’s life because seemingly exaggerated statements will have the opposite effect. Please be aware that in most cases where a driver’s license is suspended or revoked by law, the judge has no discretion whatsoever. If the license sanction is mandatory, it is best not to request relief from the judge that he or she does not have the power to provide.

Important things to Avoid

It is best not to suggest a specific penalty for the offense. Requests for a specific sentence can be interpreted as interfering with or disrespectful to the judge’s authority. However, you can request that the Judge not impose a jail sentence or consider alternatives to jail (for example, a treatment program). Do not be critical of the law, the police, the prosecution, or the alleged victim (if there is one). Understandably, the defendant’s loved ones may be upset and even angry at one or more of the people involved in the case. However, any such attacks will appear like attacks on the system and shifting of responsibility. The judge will view an attack on the system as an affront to the court. You are being asked to help the person convicted of the crime, and not give a commentary or re-litigate a case. Do not say anything untruthful.

Letters Should be from a Cross-Section of a Person’s Life

When getting letters, it is important to get letters from a cross-section of a person’s life. In other words, it is better to have a letter from an employer, a family member, a neighbor, a friend, and an AA sponsor (if there is one) as opposed to 5 letters from only friends or only family or only co-workers. For those individuals whose options are limited, several letters from friends or family are better than nothing but if there are other options, letters from individuals with varying relationships can be more persuasive. A letter from a prominent person, like a politician or law enforcement officer, will only be effective if the person knows the defendant well.

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The Perspective of a Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney

Character references can give a sentencing court a very important insight into the person they are sentencing and can positively influence the sentence imposed by the judge. The process of hearing from people that know the defendant is important to give that person humanity, and not be just a case number. The criminal defense lawyers with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C., have found that following these simple steps will help you write a great sentencing character letter.

If you or a loved one is facing a misdemeanor or felony charge and you need someone to truly and fearlessly fight for a reduced charge or sentence, call LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation or complete a Request for Assistance Form and we will promptly contact you.