Writing a Character Letter

Prior to the sentencing hearing, our office will file a pleading with the judge asking the court to impose a particular sentence.  This pleading is our opportunity to provide the judge with all the information we want the judge to know about the defendant before sentencing.  Our office likes to attach character letters written by the defendant’s friends, family and co-workers to the sentencing pleading.

If you would like to submit a character letter about the defendant, please try to type your letter.  If you do not have access to a computer or typewriter, please try to write as neatly as possible.

How To Start Your Letter

Your letter should start with “Dear Judge (last name of the judge assigned to the case)” but you should mail, email or fax your letter to the defendant’s attorney.  You should not send your letter directly to the judge.  It must be provided to the judge by the attorney.

Identify Yourself

The best character letters often begin with the writer explaining who he or she is and what he or she does.  You should then explain how long and under what circumstances you have known the defendant.  For example, is he a relative of yours? a romantic partner? a friend? a former employee or co-worker?  More specifically, explain how you met him and how well you feel you know him.  Your letter will carry more weight with the judge if you explain exactly how you have been able to form an impression about the defendant, for example, because you worked with him for several years or you have known him since childhood.  

Tell the Facts About the Defendant

After you have explained who you are and how you know the defendant, you should give your frank opinion about the defendant’s character.  You might want to discuss the defendant’s childhood, obstacles he/she has faced, his/her work history, his/her role in the family, his/her relationship with parents/children/spouses, his/her health issues, his/her substance abuse, the support structure available to the defendant upon release, or his/her plans for the future.  You might want to talk about whether the defendant has expressed remorse for his/her actions and whether you believe he/she will re-offend.

Your letter should contain specific details of your relationship with the defendant.   You can most effectively express yourself if your letter not only states your opinion, but also explains why you hold that opinion.  It is often very helpful to give specific examples of things the defendant has done or ways he or she has handled difficult situations that have led you to think well of him/her.  Anecdotes can provide the judge with a lot of insight into who the defendant is.  Don’t be afraid to tell your favorite stories about the defendant or describe your fondest memories of your interactions with him/her.

Most importantly, you do not need to ignore the fact that the defendant has committed a crime.  In fact, given that your letter will most often be used at a sentencing hearing, your letter should not try to assert the defendant’s innocence.  If you are disappointed in the defendant, you can say that.  It is important for the judge to know that the defendant has people in his/her life who will hold him/her to a high standard and can be honest with him/her about his/her mistakes. You should not ask the judge to impose a particular sentence without first discussing it with the defendant's attorney.

Naturally, all of the above suggestions are very general.  If you have any questions, please contact the investigator or attorney assigned to the defendant’s case.