So, you agreed to write a character letter to help your friend, colleague, family member, or acquaintance for his upcoming court appearance. This post addresses what you should include in this letter. It also advises on what you should exclude from this letter.
Character Letter Mechanics
A character letter is addressed to the judge who presides over the person’s case. Since, we do not always know who will preside over a particular case, a character letter should be addressed to: The Honorable Judge of the court where you are required to appear. (e.g. The Honorable Judge of the Fairfax County General District Court). My clients should send them to me. (i.e. The Honorable Judge of the Arlington Circuit Court, c/o Dischley Law, PLLC, 9255 Center Street, Suite 300B, Manassas, VA 20110). In negotiations with the prosecutor, we will present the letters. Additionally, in a sentencing hearing before the judge, we will present these letters.
The salutation of the character letter is “Dear Your Honor” or “Judge.” Please make sure you sign the letter. Additionally, include your contact information in the letter. Letters should be one page in length but should not exceed 2 pages.
The Substance of Your Character Letter
Right now, the judge or the prosecutor knows very little about the person you are writing about. He or she knows about him or her in connection with a crime. And, he or she knows his or her criminal history. We all know there is much more to this person. The most important function of your letter is to give the reader a full picture of this individual.
The most effective way is describing a specific character trait! If he or she is a generous, then write about a specific time he or she showed generosity. If he or she helps others, describe the kind of help he or she has given. When describing the person, include the “who, what, when, where, and why.” Concrete details will stick in the Judge’s mind and have a meaningful impact in how the Judge views this individual.
In your letter, you should also discuss how you know this person and for how long. Additionally, always provide a brief background of yourself. The judge & prosecutor who receive the letter knows nothing about you. Tell them who you are and how you know this person. This information helps the Judge understand the importance of your letter.
You should also discuss, if applicable, any struggles you personally observed your subject endure in the past. Don’t just describe the struggle but also address how he or she dealt with the struggle. This is particularly useful in trying to get the judge or prosecutor to consider an alternative disposition.
Things to Avoid
There are things to avoid in a sentencing letter. First, do not tell your audience this individual is innocent or this case is an injustice. Your opinion matters; however, our audience may be skeptical. The purpose of your letter is to convey the traits this person possesses and what they mean to you. Our audience wants to know who you are, who this individual is, and the specific reason why you chose to write your letter. Telling them that the person is innocent is not helpful. It also dramatically undermines the credibility of your letter.
Second, do not discuss that any specific sentence would be wrong or an injustice. Avoid the perception that you are telling your audience how to do his or her job. This information gives your letter less effect. The letters will be used for negotiations and mitigation. Giving information about this person is entirely appropriate and important. Just avoid telling the judge or prosecutor how to do his or her job.
A letter in support of a person at sentencing is powerful and will have a meaningful impact on the case.