Character letters can be effective in some criminal cases. A family member, friend, employer, or other party writes a letter to the judge to help mitigate sentencing. In cases in which character witnesses are not allowed or limited, character letters could be the only way for a judge to learn more about a defendant’s character before sentencing.

Tips for Writing an Effective Character Letter

If you are asked to write a character letter for someone, it can be helpful to keep the following tips in mind when creating your letter:

1.  Address Your Letter to the Judge

When you address your letter, do not address the letter to “whom it may concern” or “judge.” You should also avoid addressing your letter to the court directly.

It is best to address the letter to the judge handling the case. The person’s criminal defense attorney can provide the name of the judge. You can also contact the clerk of court to ask for the name of the judge presiding over the sentencing hearing.

2.  Establish a Clear Relationship with the Defendant

The judge needs to know that you are a credible witness regarding the defendant’s character. You cannot be a credible witness unless you have a relationship with the person. Therefore, it is essential that you explain how you know the person.

Make sure you highlight how long you have known the defendant and how close you are to the defendant. A close, long relationship with someone allows you to offer reliable, credible insight into the person’s character and judgment. 

3.  Be Truthful

Do not embellish or include false statements in your character letter. By doing so, you destroy your credibility as a character witness. Also, intentionally misleading the court could result in criminal charges against you.

4.  Be Positive

Discuss the positive aspects of the defendant’s life. For example, if you are an employer, you can discuss the defendant’s job performance. Friends and family may want to highlight the person’s contribution to community programs, the church, and the defendant’s family.

Judges receive character letters that state how wonderful a person is or how the person is honest, supportive, and trustworthy. However, a judge needs specific examples of how the person’s actions exhibit these traits.

For example, if the defendant volunteers at a homeless shelter or works with his son’s little league team, those would be examples of his dedication to the community and his family. The more specific you can be with examples, the more effective the character letter can be for the defendant. 

5.  Include a Discussion of the Crime

Do not gloss over the fact that the person committed a crime. Let the judge know that you are aware a crime was committed and the person has either pleaded guilty or been judged guilty. 

Avoid making excuses for the person’s behavior. Instead, focus on how the defendant has expressed remorse for committing the crime. If there were mitigating circumstances, you can discuss those circumstances without stating they are excuses for the crime.

6.  Do Not Suggest Penalties for the Crime

A judge does not want to be told how to rule in a case. Avoid discussing specific criminal penalties that you believe would be appropriate for the crime.

Instead, focus on how a potential sentence could impact the people who depend on the defendant. For example, a jail sentence for a minor theft crime would prevent a parent from caring for a child or paying child support payments. A child with a parent in jail is deprived of the parent’s love, care, and support. 

An employer would be without a trusted employee if the employee were to go to jail. The employer would need to hire and train a new employee. The business could suffer from the loss of a key employee. 

A defendant who volunteers or works with community organizations would not be able to do so on house arrest or in jail. Make sure that you focus on how the community and individuals would suffer because of the sentence instead of discussing how the defendant would suffer.

Always Check with the Criminal Defense Lawyer

Before sending a character letter, allow the person’s criminal defense lawyer to review the letter. A lawyer may have additional suggestions about ways to strengthen the letter to help persuade a judge to lessen a criminal sentence. The lawyer also needs to review the letter to ensure that it does not contain statements that could potentially hurt the person’s case.

A character letter aims to provide a judge with information about the defendant that the judge can consider during sentencing. Keep your letter short and to the point. The judge may discard long, rambling character letters.