A character letter for court purposes needs not only a healthy dose of authenticity, it calls for specific and personal stories that illustrate the defendant's quality of character as only someone who knows them can tell it. Part of composing an effective letter is also knowing what not to include.
In a 2014 study published by the Alabama Law Journal, a survey of 900 judges agreed that character reference letters serve as a useful resource when deliberating a case. Character reference letters may not single-handedly turn the tides of a court decision, but they certainly influence the finer points of the trial's ultimate outcome. Defendants have the opportunity to submit multiple character letters to the judge, the content of which the judge takes into account when determining the severity of the sentencing. With a defendant's destiny potentially on the line, you'll want to make sure you do the job thoroughly and properly if you're tasked with writing a reference letter.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Although honesty is paramount, there is no concrete rulebook for writing character reference letters to a judge.
Intent of a Character Reference Letter
To understand how to write a character letter to a judge, it helps to understand what the letter sets out to achieve. Above all, a reference letter aims to honestly describe the character makeup of the defendant as you know it from personal experience.
A letter of character for court purposes strives to further the judge's understanding of the defendant as a person, a fully rendered human being outside of the limited confines of the case in question. These letters are not legal or factual defenses. While evidence and testimony provide factual proof for the judge to consider, a letter of reference provides social proof that someone out there is willing to vouch for the defendant.
What to Include in a Letter to the Judge
There is no hard-and-fast rule for writing a character letter to a judge, but some types of content may be more helpful than others. Of course, you'll need to include the basics, such as who you are, what your relationship to the defendant is and how long you've known each other.
Typically, it's not necessary to write about the crime being considered during the trial. Instead, as the writer, you should focus on how you know the defendant and on what kind of person you know him to be. Examples of content include:
- A brief introduction about the writer, beyond how you know the defendant, including your age and occupation. Remember, the defendant's relationship to an upstanding member of the community conveys character.
- A personal story or two that illustrate the quality of the defendant's character.
- Examples of how the defendant has positively contributed to your life or to the well-being of the community by volunteering or donating, for instance.
- Examples of personal behavior that show a different side of the defendant compared to what the prosecution has presented.
- Hardships in the defendant's life that may have influenced behavior, such as mental health issues or addiction; include steps taken to address these issues.
- Ways in which the defendant may have matured since charges were brought.
- Examples of remorse exhibited by the defendant.
As for more technical content, don't forget to address the judge by name and title, and proofread your letter before delivering it to the defendant's attorney. Remember to include:
- The date of writing.
- Your typed name and signature.
- Your contact information.
- A statement that you understand that the letter may be used for sentencing purposes.
- A statement that you are willing to be contacted regarding the content of the letter.
More Tips for Writing a Character Letter
As a letter writer, using a pre-made template or sample character letter to a judge can serve as a handy springboard, but be wary of relying on a singular template if you're a defendant asking for character letters from your friends and family. If all of the reference letters submitted to the judge use similar phrasing and structure, they may appear manufactured or insincere. Likewise, don't place too much focus on getting a reference letter from a "big name." The judge will likely find more value in a heartfelt letter from an ordinary person who has known you for a decade than in an impersonal memo from a senator or CEO who may simply owe you a favor.
In the letter, avoid recommending a sentence length or otherwise making suggestions regarding sentencing. It's your job to describe the character of the defendant, not to tell the judge how to do her job. Always, always be honest and veer away from overselling the defendant like a bad commercial or propaganda piece. Focus instead on specific examples of positive actions rather than on broad, general characteristics.
There's no right length for a reference letter, but they're usually a few paragraphs to a few pages long. If you're a defendant in a position to turn in reference letters to a judge, don't go overboard. While providing several letters is a common practice, Judge Mark W. Bennett tells Prison Professors that he once received over 100 reference letters from a single defendant in one case – and you don't need a letter to know that that's going too far.
- Prison Professors: Character Reference Letters
- The University of Alabama Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. School of Law: Last Words: A Survey and Analysis of Federal Judges' Views on Allocution in Sentencing
- Bamberry Lawyers Criminal Law: Writing a Character Reference for Court
- Robert Miller and Associates: Character Reference Letters and Letters of Recommendation