Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer– Character letters in Colorado criminal cases DO make a difference. This article is intended to be a comprehensive guide to help those who want to write letters for your Colorado criminal case to help them understand the components of a “successful” character letter.
While I have written on the subject of character letters in criminal cases before – and there are many excellent online sources to use, I decided to write a more comprehensive guide to writing character letters for my clients and for any others out there who could use this important information.
Will Character Letters Really Make A Difference?
My clients routinely ask me whether character reference letters will actually make a difference and help their case. My answer is always the same – if a case is in negotiations – character letters can help to obtain the best plea offer.
If the case is set for sentencing where the Judge has discretion in making the sentencing decision, there is no question that Judges read these character letters and I believe they almost always impact the Judge’s final sentencing decision.
I encourage my clients – in appropriate cases – (where letters really can make a difference) to begin to gather at the very start of the case as many character letters from the most letters credible people they know anc can find. While letters from only relatives are better than no letters at all – the most impactful letters are from people outside the Defendant’s family who may impress the judge with their insights of the Defendant and their inside knowledge of who this Defendant really is (See WHO below).
Character letters are a way to persuade a Judge, who is always hungry for information upon which he or she may make an informed decision, to be more compassionate and lenient on the Defendant. Judge’s who are provided ONLY information from the DA or the Pre-Sentence Report, have a limited and somewhat one sided source of information.
Because there is really no way to climb into the mind of a DA or a Judge, there is no perfect method for measuring the final effect of these letters – but one thing is for sure – they cannot hurt the Defendant’s case. If well written, as further described below, character letters have the potential to make a major difference in the final result of the case.
In short – a character reference explains to the Judge who the Defendant really is, rather than allowing others in the criminal justice system to negatively define the Defendant by his or her conviction.
The Who, What, When, Where, Why and How Approach To Criminal Court Character Letters
I have organized this article into the most thorough format I could think of – the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why approach to information analysis.
I. The WHO Of Colorado Character Letters in Criminal Cases
The first question to address is obvious. Who should you ask to write a character letter? In short, character letters should reflect a broad cross-section of the Defendant’s life.
A character letter does not have to necessarily come from an “important” person. The letter can originate from anyone who knows the Defendant well and has something positive or useful to say.
On the other hand, a Defendant should try to seek out highly respectable people, people with “credibility” in the community such as community leaders, former or current police offices. IN short, you are seeking to ask individuals whose own character is impeccable and who may have social standing in the community to write you a character letter.
Seek out those with good reputations and do not ask those with criminal records to write character letters. The writer of a character letter is a person who knows the Defendant well enough to give an honest account of their good attributes
Examples of WHO should be asked for a letter are:
- Past and present employers,
- Colleagues from work,
- Family members,
- Personal Friends,
- School Administrators and Teachers,
- Family friends,
- Sports – other kinds of coaches,
- Members of a club or organizations,
- Members of community groups, church, or other religious organizations.
II. The WHAT Of Colorado Character Letters in Criminal Cases
The WHAT of Colorado character letters addresses a broad listing of guidelines and tips of what to include and what not to include in a character letter. These are intended to provide insights from years of using them to make a difference in Colorado criminal cases – they from an old dog defense lawyer’s perspective.
Some lawyers I am sure would disagree with some of the insights I provide so make sure to seek out more than one opinion of how to put a character letter together.
Some Ideas, Tips And Guidelines To Help You Write Your Character Letter
1. Prove To The Judge Or Prosecutor That You Have Knowledge Of The Case – When you demonstrate to the Judge (Judge in this article includes the District Attorney for the purposes of the impact of a character letter) you increase your credibility account.
By telling the Judge that you are aware of the charges in the case when you refer to the Defendant’s criminal acts, the Judge will know you have the information you need to be heard by the Court. A character reference without this information has little value to the sentencing Judge.
You also establish your credentials when you let the judge you are not only aware of the charges the Defendant faces, but, having that information, you insist on writing this letter in the context of that knowledge of those charges as juxtaposed against the Defendant’s life story.
2. Demonstrate How And How Long You Have Known The Defendant – A strong character reference will always be based on a deep familiarity with the Defendant. Do not write a character letter unless you know Defendant at least fairly well.
“Acquaintance” letters are almost worthless at best and can actually damage the defense at sentencing or in the eyes of those reading the letter,… at worst.
3. Make Your Character Letter Detailed And Comprehensive … But Not Too Long – While you will want include many specific details about the Defendant in your character letter, that detail should address the qualities of the Defendant that are most relevant to this case. For example in a theft case, a Defendant’s character qualities for honesty and truthfulness are the most relevant character traits to address in a letter to the Judge.
Character letters should be no longer than two pages and should ideally be one page.
You must use that space to help the Judge understand that the Defendant, again in a theft case, has a good heart and that theft was something you would never have expected from him.
A short story that illustrates the Defendant’s character would be the best vehicle to accomplish this task.
3. Make Certain To Include Major Positive Things About The Defendant’s Character – Qualities, Life’s Work, Accomplishments – Judges look for reasons to show compassion. Without a good criminal defense lawyer, they would only hear about the negative things involving the Defendant’s actions. Tell the Judge in your letter about the Defendant’s volunteer work, helping ill friends and relatives, work at the church in the neighborhood. Perhaps the Defendant is a Pop Warner or Little League coach or he or she teaches immigrants English?
A character letter adds color and texture to the Defendant’s life. It can also provide necessary context to the crimes committed in an otherwise full and good life.
Be truthful, avoid hyperbole and make your words sincere – …speak from your heart.
4. Use Objective Factors And Descriptions NOT Just General Comments About Character To Illustrate Character – To say that someone is a great guy, a good son, or an excellent worker is helpful but not persuasive. The best and most persuasive character letters add life to these descriptors through the use of stories and naturally written specific details about why and how this person has such great character.
While it may be tough and may require some digging – ask friends and family to search themselves and others who know the Defendant well to find specific examples of a Defendant’s perhaps unknown and private acts of charity, humanity, personal decency and compassion for others.
By humanizing the Defendant with his most private conduct. you can introduce this person to the Judge in a way a criminal defense lawyer could never accomplish.
5. You Must Convey That The Defendant Sincerely Feels Actual Remorse – While you are in the most artificial of all environments, the courtroom, you will quickly understand that a Judge’s sentencing decision is clearly based on the weighing of a number of factors. One of the chief factors is whether the Judge can tell that this Defendant really cares about the impact of the crime on the victim and victims in the case.
Proving this to a Judge is one of the most difficult tasks for the defense.
If the Accused has expressed genuine remorse to you or to others in your presence – write about it in your character letter. Let the Judge know the circumstances where this occurred and how you became aware of this expression of remorse.
If this was not the case – then use your best writing to tell the Judge why you believe this Defendant, based on his character traits, would be the kind of person to feel remorse and compassion for the victim or victims of the Defendant’s crime.
6. Try To Never Exaggerate – Just Tell the Complete Truth – Judges do just that – they “judge.” They are among the chief experts in society that excel at detecting exaggeration. The worst result for a Defendant is for the sentencing Judge to discredit your character letter’s account of the Defendant based on information the Judge has from another source that somehow impugns the truthfulness of your account. Believe me this happens.
Try for complete factual accuracy and truth in your letter to a Judge. If you find you cannot tell the truth – if you cannot remain factual and will write fiction, then don’t write the letter.. say nothing… rather than lie.
Judges hate – yes hate and easily see through half-truths If you take your time to be completely honest, and not exaggerate the Defendant’s character, the Judge will probably know it and assign more weight to your character letter.
7. Do NOT, In Any Way – EVER – Shift The Blame To The Victim – While it is as natural as breathing for a Defendant’s family member, especially a parent. to blame the victim for what happened in the case, if you learn nothing else from this article, do not make this mistake, do NOT criticize or blame the victim in the case.
Blaming the victim is the single most destructive thing you could do to the Defendant’s case… even if what you say is true.
Leave the task of bringing out the mitigating facts in the case – for example – the victim’s decision to engage in “mutual combat” in an assault case – to the criminal defense lawyer.
Blame shifting is like putting two magnets together – it will have the exact opposite effect on the sentencing Judge as you would expect. A Judge reading an attack on the victim will have an immediate and visceral reaction to that tactic and disregard everything else you say in your letter.
8. If The Defendant Was Convicted At Trial Or Pleaded Guilty – Do NOT Assert The Defendant Was Wrongfully Convicted – This is the same side of the victim balming coin above, If you state a belief that the Defendant is innocent of the crime to which he has pleaded guilty or for which he was convicted at trial, you risk again, losing all of your credibilty.
9. If The Defendant Was Convicted At Trial Or Pleaded Guilty – Never Attack The Prosecutor, The Jury Or The Judge – The other side of the victim blaming and claims of innocence coin is attacking the very fairness of the trial, the aggressiveness of the Prosecutor – DA, or assigning mistakes to the Jury verdict. Above all – don’t criticize the Judge or accuse him or her of unfairness.
Focus your efforts on one thing – since this is a character letter, write the letter about the Defendant’s character as described above and below.
10. Don’t Minimize The Crime Committed By The Defendant – Almost all crimes have impacts well beyond the understanding of the Defendant’s family and friends. By minimizing the impact of the crime on the victim, the message to the Judge is that this whole case has – yes here it comes “been blown out of proportion.”
Judges see this kind of opinion as an indirect attack on the victim and may invite the Judge to slam closed the very door you wanted to remain open. Leave the nature of the crime committed… to the lawyers…
11. If You Know – Carefully Address The Impacts A Severe Sentence Will Have On The Defendant And – Or His Family – There will always be direct and indirect impacts of a conviction on the Defendant, his or her family and friends.
A sentencing hearing will almost always gloss over these “collateral impacts.”
Some sentences so disrupt the Defendant’s life that the impact of the sentence may have a disparate impact on this Defendant who faces the same sentence as another Defendant in the same kind of case however this Defendant will punished much more harshly in a way that was never intended.
Examples include, loss of a spouse or parent who can no longer receive care from the Defendant; an ill child who will no longer have health insurance due to the loss of a job; the loss of a home or a family farm and the like.
This happens very rarely and the subject – comparing the impact to other Defendant’s similarly situation, should be avoided in most instances because the DA will run with this theme and begin a comparison of the impact of the crime on the victim or victims in the case…something to be avoided.
12. Try Not To Suggest A Specific Punishment Or Even Address The Possible Sentence – Judges best understand the law of sentencing. Recommending a specific result may be viewed by the Judge as interfering with the Court’s judgement. On the other hand, making a recommendation against jail or prison and for so called “alternative sentencing” can be effective.
An example here is where you request that the Judge not impose a “straight” jail sentence or you request that the Judge consider “alternative sentencing options” such as work release or home detention if those sentencing options exist in the case …especially where the harsher sentence will actually end up unfairly punishing the Defendant’s family.
Remember, Judges get annoyed by people who do not know all the details of the case or the rules of sentencing – telling them what to do. Just reflect on what you do know – accentuate the positives about the Defendant in your character reference and again, leave it to the lawyer to make the recommendation on the specifics of sentencing.
13. Find Out The Defendant’s Criminal History – And Acknowledge It In Your Letter – Alternatively, Freely Admit You Don’t Know The Defendant’s Criminal History If You Don’t Know It – You should try to learn whether the person you are endorsing has been in trouble before- especially for the same offense.
You cannot make the argument that an embezzlement committed by the Defendant will never happen again and was clearly out of character for this man if he has prior convictions for the same kind of crime – such as other theft related crimes.
14. Try To Tone Down The Emotion If Possible – Your letter should be balanced clear on the facts above, but never overly too emotional. Extreme emotion is a persuasion killer as any trial lawyer will tell you.
Of course there will be times when expressions of emotion may be helpful, but in almost every case – extreme emotion in your letter means a lack of control and … lack of the calm persuasion of an adult letter means less weight will be given to your letter by the Judge.
15. Write The Letter About The Defendant – And No One Else – Focus. If you cannot stop yourself from making your letter about you instead of about the Defendant, don’t write it.
If you read your letter and you are more focused on how the letter makes you sound rather than how the Defendant should be viewed – I suggest rewriting it. … if you still find yourself losing the theme of the letter don’t write the letter.
16. Don’t Editorialize About The So Called “Corrupt Criminal Justice System” – A character letter is not an opportunity to espouse your views of the criminal justice system. Make sure you reject the urge to comment on your opinions of what commonly goes wrong in court and how it can be engaged.
The Colorado sentencing Judge will see any attack on the Colorado ciminal justice system as an attack on his and his brethren’s Courts.
17. Finally, Try Not To Just Repeat – “Parrot” The Defense Lawyer’s Bullet Points Even If You Know Them – It is most likely the case that the Colorado sentencing Judge will know the direction of the criminal defense lawyer’s arguments
If you simply repeat the defense lawyer’s case – the letter you write will appear to be planned and organized around a “theme.” Orchestrating a character letter writing campaign will most likely backfire against the Defendant as the Judge may feel as if he or she is being “gamed.”
III. The WHERE And WHEN Of Colorado Character Letters in Criminal Cases
Make certain to send your character letter to the Defendant’s lawyer and only to his or her lawyer. Don’t send the letters directly to the Judge, the court, or to the DA – Prosecutor.
Get the letter to the criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible after they are requested. If they are being collected by the Defendant, the Defendant should try to group them into one email or snail mail them to the lawyer – whichever method the lawyer prefers. I would rather receive these letters in packs of 5 or more rather than have them trickle in every other day. The advantage of email is the scanning of the letters from snail mail form is avoided.
The criminal defense lawyer will decide which letters to use – eliminating the letters that would do more harm than good. He will then provide the letters to the Judge at the appropriate time depending on the nature and timing of the case.
They should be written as soon as possible so the judge will not only have time to read them, but so that he or she will also have time to contemplate the requests made in the letters.
Again this is your chance to say something positive about the defendant. If you write it and give it to the lawyers early they will have time to ask you to change it if what you’re saying would not help or is awkwardly drafted.
It is always useful to get character letters to the lawyer well before Court because sometimes letters lead to other sources to helpful information about their Defendant.
ALWAYS put a contact phone number on the letter. This gives the lawyer the ability to say to the Prosecutor or the Judge – “please call them” and you will see that this letter is submitted in good faith and with the greatest sincerity. They rarely will follow up.
Providing a letter the day before court or on the day of court is not helpful at all and will probably mean that your letter will never be read or, worse, will irritate the judge.
IV. The WHY Of Colorado Character Letters in Criminal Cases
As noted in the introduction – a character letter asks the sentencing Judge (or a District Attorney during negotiations toward a plea bargain), to see this Defendant as an individual human being rather than the sum of his crime. The letter essentially asks both of these authorities to exercise mercy.
Character letters give a Judge insights into the person before them for sentencing. These letters have the potential to positively influence the final sentence imposed by the Judge …making this Defendant more than a case number and a victim impact statement. This letter, as noted throughout, is an attempt to infuse him or her with humanity.
The impact of character letters that are presented on behalf of the Defendant cannot be understated and there will be cases where they provide information to a Judge that Judge could never obtain from any other source.
V. The HOW Of Colorado Character Letters in Criminal Cases
This section addresses the mechanics of actually putting a character letter together – section by section and incorportating all of the tips, ideas and warnings above.
Some early suggestions. Take your time with the letter, make it attractive, professional, respectful and easy to read. Try to write no more than two pages.
How Many Letters Are Enough?
The answer is “as many as possible.” The lawyer will cull the letters choosing the best of these letters from individuals which together demonstrate the varying relationships that are the mosaic of this Defendant’s life.
Use Letterhead If Possible – Letterhead Builds The Credibility Of The Writer
Character references that are on letterhead can be very powerful for the reader to immediately credit the writer of the letter with the weight that comes from success in the community.
An Outline To Help Put All Of This Together
Here are some of the important elements that should be included in each character reference letter:
The Mechanics Of A Good Character Letter In A Colorado Criminal Case
To: The Defense Attorney on behalf of Defendant
From: Return address
[HMS – Do not write “To Whom It May Concern“]
Paragraph 1 – The Introductory Paragraph
Here you tell the Judge or District Attorney who you are by name and profession. Here it is also important to let the Judge know that you are aware of the charges against this Defendant.
Telling the Judge you know the charges against the Defendant sends a message that you are informed of the seriousness of the case and that you are still willing to write this important letter on the Defendant’s behalf.
Paragraph 2 – Your Relationship To The Defendant
In this paragraph you explain in what capacity you know the Defendant -brother, old friend, colleague at work, spouse).
Paragraph 3 – How And When You First Met And Long Have You Have Known The Defendant?
It is axiomatic that the longer you have known the Defendant, the greater weight the Judge will place on your opinion of him or her.
You need not get too detailed or too personal in this paragraph. It should be a brief summary as is the case for every paragraph in a character letter.
Paragraph 4 – The General Statement Of Support For The Defendant
The intent of this paragraph is to express such things as your discussions with the Defendant about the case and your impressions of his level of remorse. You can also use this paragraph to provide expressions of your ability to provide him or her with financial, emotional, and / or other forms of support after he or she is sentenced.
Here you may explain how the Defendant has learned from his or her mistakes, describe (if you know) the steps he has taken to change, and that you belief that he or she will not make the same mistakes again.
If you are aware of the roles such issues as mental illness or drug or alcohol use may have played in the Defendant’s life and the commission of these crimes, you could put these thoughts into this paragraph.
This paragraph – (or additional paragraphs under this section) – can also be used to detail any help the Defendant has sought prior to sentencing such as therapy, counseling, rehabilitation or other forms of treatment.
Finally in this section you can outline any personal problems or hardships you are aware of that may have played a part in the Defendant’s commission of the crimes involved.
Paragraph 5 – The Character Of The Defendant
Here ou directly address the character of the Defendant. You write about the specific good things about him or her. You should write about the Defendant’s character traits for honesty, courage, and love of family and friends.
You should provide poignant examples of these traits if you can.
This is also a good place to recount your knowledge of things such as charity work or special achievements.
Your goal in this section is to portray the reputation and character of the Defendant in his community. Is this is truly “out of character” for him to have committed the offense.
Here is where you might tell the Judge what his character is so that it will become clear to the Judge why this is out of character. To do this, you can offer specific personal experiences or insights you have of the Defendant that will help the Judge understand the Defendant’s true nature.
Do NOT write that this crime was out of character if the Defendant has previously been in trouble for the same or even other crimes. You must always be truthful, if you don’t know the Defendant’s criminal history don’t write an “out of character” reference. If you do know his or her history – you should state that you know the Defendant has been in trouble before and how this case may be different from those times.
Paragraph 6 – The Final Paragraph And Conclusion:
This final paragraph is used to tell the Judge that you and the Defendant both understand the gravity of the wrongs that underlay the charges in the case. Here you might want to express again the remorse you know the Defendant feels and the Defendant’s plans to right his or her wrongs and his plans to move forward with his or her life.
Only if a severe sentence will impact the Defendant disproportionately, would you write about how a sentence to incarceration would negatively affect the Defendant’s health, his family, and his job. Be specific but also be as brief as possible.
[HMS – Be careful here. Judges hate it when people try to suggest an actual sentence.]
Paragraph 7. Thank the judge for taking the time to read and consider your letter.
Finally, reinforce your belief in the Defendant as a good and potentially productive person. Then invite the Judge to contact you if he or she would like further information.
/s/ (your signature in blue ink if possible)
Summary And Conclusion – Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you are asked to write a character letter, you might want want to go to Google Images and search for character letters in criminal cases to find character letter templates.
There are many good sources of character letters on the Net. This article was my attempt to give you a comprehensive approach to writing a persuasive and therefore a “good” character letter.
To see some excellent samples of character letters – follow these LINKS:
Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you found any of the information I have provided on this web page article helpful please click my Plus+1 or the Share buttons for Twitter and Facebook below so that others may also find it.
The contents of this article are based upon my research, my personal experience and my personal analysis and opinions developed from my thirty six years (as of 2017) of criminal trial experience from both sides of the courtroom – as a former career prosecutor for Arapahoe and Douglas Counties (13 years) and as the owner of my own Criminal Defense Law Firm since 1999 (18 years).
The reader is also admonished that Colorado criminal law, like criminal law in every state and at the Federal level, changes constantly. The article appearing above was accurate at the time it was drafted but it cannot account for changes occurring after it was uploaded.
If, after reading this article, you have questions about your case and would like to consider retaining our law firm, we invite you to contact us at the Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm – 303-627-7777.
Never stop fighting – never stop believing in yourself and your right to due process of law. You will not be alone in court, H. Michael will be at your side every step of the way – advocating for justice and the best possible result in your case. H. Michael Steinberg is passionate about criminal defense. His extensive knowledge and experience of Colorado Criminal Law gives him the edge you need to properly handle your case
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H. Michael works hard to get his clients the best possible results in and out of the courtroom. He has written, and continues to write, extensively on Colorado criminal law and he hopes this article helps you in some small way – Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer.