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Character Reference Letters Can Have a Significant Impact in Mitigating a Criminal Sentence

A criminal defense attorney’s work as an advocate is not done once the verdict is handed down or a guilty plea is entered by the defendant. Much effective advocacy may still be accomplished prior to and during the sentencing hearing. This includes obtaining references and recommendations from individuals who are well-acquainted with the defendant and who can vouch for his or her good character. These individuals may provide testimony at the sentencing hearing or write statements for the court’s review. There are strict limitations on the number of such character witnesses, but no limits, with regard to the submission of character reference letters. A character letter is designed to show support for a defendant in a criminal case. These letters have strong potential to influence the judge, and may have significant impact on the ultimate sentence imposed on a defendant in a criminal case.
An effective character reference letter has as its main goal to help the judge understand the defendant as an individual, outside of the criminal conviction. It is important that the character witness express how he or she knows the defendant and for how long. If the witness has known the defendant for many years and knows him or her rather well, the writer should opt in favor of sharing personal stories or experiences that discuss the positive aspects of the defendant’s life. For example, the writer may recount instances in which he observed the defendant performing acts of service to others or being involved with volunteer work with community service or church organizations. Any personal examples or experiences with the defendant can reveal that the witness truly knows about the defendant’s character. Such insight may influence the judge to view the defendant differently from what the prosecution is presenting. The credibility of the witness depends substantially on the extent and nature of the relationship she has with the defendant.
Many defendants and their attorneys are under the mistaken impression that recommendations from individuals of high status in the community are particularly valuable, such as politicians or other influential persons, who have no significant connection with the defendant, and may be writing out of a sense of obligation to his constituent. However, these reference letters are not nearly as effective as references that reveal or explain from direct knowledge, specific traits, characteristics, personality, or the personal attainments of the defendant. The main goal of a character letter is to tell a story about the defendant that humanizes him or her. It should demonstrate what makes the individual more than just a “defendant,” and to convey this message to the court.
A good character reference letter should make some reference to the crime. It is important that the writer acknowledge that she is aware that the defendant has either pleaded guilty or been judged guilty for the offense. However, attempting to excuse the Defendant’s conduct should be avoided. Instead, statements may be made, regarding the Defendant’s remorse for his conduct and resulting efforts towards reformation and rehabilitation.
Finally, any discussion of recommendations to the court for sentencing should be avoided, as the judge is the one who is uniquely equipped, by virtue of the knowledge of the facts and the law, to issue an appropriate sentence, rather than any well-meaning layperson. What is more useful to mention, rather, is how a potential sentence could impact the families and individuals who depend on the defendant. For example, mention might be made of the fact that incarceration for a relatively minor crime would prevent a parent from caring for a child or supporting children through support payments. As an additional example, the Defendant’s employer might wish to indicate that the Defendant is a trusted and valued employee, whose absence from the company would be expected to cause significant problems and disruption for the company.
The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones in the sentencing phase of your criminal matter. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.