PRACTICE TIPS: OBTAINING THE MOST IMPACTFUL CHARACTER LETTERS FOR SENTENCING IN FEDERAL COURT
Have a client who can collect over 400 letters to present to the judge prior to sentencing? The quantity is impressive, but do the letters leave a lasting impression? Do they reinforce your themes for mitigation?
I have found that following these steps will assist in obtaining the most impactful character letters for sentencing:
1. Create a character letter format tailored specifically to the client.
Determine your themes for mitigation and choose the best people to write the letters to support each theme. Are they co-workers who can opine on the client’s generosity in helping others succeed? Are they community leaders who can highlight the client’s exhaustive volunteer efforts in the community? Are they teachers, coaches or parents that have experienced the client’s exceptional devotion to his children?
The format should be tailored to support the themes for mitigation. The format should request that writers from different aspects of the client’s life address particular questions. For example, in a case where a client found himself in the middle of a fraud scheme started by others, letters from co-workers can address the client’s usual honesty and integrity and strict adherence to following proper procedure. It is imperative that they provide specific examples of the client’s conduct to support this notion. They will be convincing in explaining why the conduct is out of character. Requesting that writers address specific questions or areas of focus will result in the most impactful letters.
2. Request that writers provide detailed examples, preferably small stories or vignettes that perfectly describe the client’s character. This is absolutely the most important factor in obtaining a character letter that leaves a lasting impression. Judges glaze over when reading that the client is kind and generous. Each letter runs together. However, if a pastor chronicles the client’s anonymous contributions to those in need and a neighbor discusses the client’s payment of his son’s medical procedure, the examples provide verification of his kindness and generosity.
To highlight the client’s integrity, a co-worker writes a story about the client making a huge mistake resulting in the client receiving extra money that no one would have discovered had the client not reported the mistake. Providing 10 or 15 letters with different examples of his honesty and integrity drives home the point and makes a lasting impression.
3. Request that the writers acknowledge that the client has violated the law. It is important that the judge knows the writer is aware of the client’s illegal conduct and still wants to offer his support. I have seen letters addressing the client’s good character and concluding, “If (the client) did something illegal, I am sure he had no idea he was violating the law as he would never ever break the law.” This comment detracts from the credibility of the letter writer and any positive comments also lose credibility. The judge knows that the client did not come clean with this writer and admit his conduct. It reveals that he has not accepted responsibility for his actions.
4. Carefully screen each letter!
Work with letter writers. I have rarely seen a perfect letter. Some offer irrelevant information, are too general, are way too long, or have examples that could use more detail. Ask the writer to make changes.
Some letters can be detrimental. I have actually seen letters that are addressed “to whom it may concern” and thanking the (judge) for a job opportunity. I have seen letters criticizing the government and calling the client a “victim”. Yikes!
Lastly, make sure your format instructs the writer to send the letter to you and provide your address. Specifically request that the writers do not send their letters directly to the judge.
While these tips seem obvious, more time and attention should be allocated to collecting the right letters and screening them to assure that they properly verify the client’s good character and reinforce the themes for mitigation. Don’t let your judge glaze over.