This week various political figures took some abuse for writing letters seeking leniency in the sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who got a 15-month sentence for monetary transactions designed to conceal that he was paying off victims of sexual abuse.
I've argued before that if you write a sentencing letter in support of a famous (or notorious) person, the media will report on it in an insipid and sensational way. That's inevitable, and media reaction isn't my focus. My focus is suggesting how to write a letter that furthers the best interests of the defendant and is most likely to move the judge towards a better result.
With that in mind, here are some rules:
This letter is not a vehicle for you to express yourself. A letter supporting a defendant is not an opportunity for you to posture, work out issues, or express yourself artistically. It is an opportunity to help the judge see the defendant as a human being. If you cannot stop yourself from making your letter about you instead of about the defendant, or if you find yourself focusing on how the letter makes you sound, please don't write the letter.
Nobody cares what you think about this case or the criminal justice system. Now is not the time to say that the criminal justice system is unjust or should be spending resources on other things or how far worse criminals get away or how this shouldn't be a crime or this is politically motivated. Go write that shit on your LiveJournal. It will annoy the judge.
For these purposes, the defendant is not innocent. Most likely the defendant pled guilty. Or maybe he or she was convicted by a jury. Either way, the judge is starting from the premise that the defendant is guilty. Appeals and habeas corpus motions — or, maybe, attorney arguments about residual doubt — are the place for discussions of innocence. A sentencing letter isn't. "I know he didn't do it" and "this must be a mistake" dramatically undermine a defendant's statements of contrition in plea cases, and simply annoy the judge in jury verdict cases. If the defendant has done his or her best to accept responsibility and covey their regret and you come in and write "I've talked to him and I know he didn't do it," you are undermining the defense. It's not persuasive.
Don't bother if you don't know the defendant fairly well. A good sentencing letter isn't like a letter of recommendation that a professor writes about one of the 150 students in a frosh cattle-call course. It's something you write if you know the person — if you have a connection to them. Letters by mere acquaintances are worthless at best and damaging at worst.
When you praise the defendant's character, bear in mind they are being sentenced for a crime. The core idea "I was shocked by this case because I know the defendant to be a good person" is okay, expressed carefully. So, for instance, if your friend is being sentenced for structuring monetary transactions to hide the fact he's paying off people he sexually abused as kids when he was a coach, saying "[w]e all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few" is appallingly tone-deaf and probably hurts the defendant. Praise of the defendant can't ignore the present circumstances, or it seems uninformed or stubbornly blind. "Defendant's behavior towards me has been so kind and decent that these serious charges were devastating" is the right tone.
Don't minimize the crime. Why do I have to tell you this? Don't suggest that the crime isn't a big deal. Even if it isn't. That's for the defense lawyer to argue, not you. You're going to undermine the defendant's attempt to show contrition.
Don't attack the victim. You utter moron.
Don't talk about your yacht. When you're talking about how well you know the defendant and how you and the defendant have interacted, avoid emphasizing things that highlight the defendant's life of privilege and/or power. First, it sounds like you're bragging, which is obnoxious. Second, it sounds like you are implying that rich or powerful people should get lower sentences, will will antagonize the judge. Third, it tends to make the defendant look worse: if he or she had so much, why did they do this? Downplay it.
Humanize the defendant, preferably with private conduct. It's fine to talk about how a defendant has led a life of public service. But the best stories to tell are the ones about how the defendant acted when nobody was looking. Some of the most powerful letters are about the defendant's small, private acts of humanity, compassion, and decency. You are, after all, asking a judge to see this defendant as an individual human being rather than as a statistic — to exercise mercy. What better way that to tell a story about such mercy exercised by the defendant? The letters I like best aren't the ones about how my client paid to attend a charity gala every year. They're the letters that tell the story about how the client visited the company's receptionist in the hospital and took her whole visiting family out to dinner, or about how he or she helped a stranger, or how he or she showed private kindness. "This Congressman supported the Family Leave Act" is not nearly as powerful as "when my mom died Bob stayed up with me all night and drove me to the funeral home and sat with me while I handled her affairs."
Don't tell the judge what to do. Some lawyers ask letter-writers to ask for a specific sentence, or to ask explicitly for leniency. I don't. I don't think it's effective. The judge knows what the defense is asking for — the defense lawyer is arguing it. Parroting the defense lawyer's talking points makes the letters sound too orchestrated. For most letter-writers, you're asking the judge to consider the type of person you know the defendant to be. The right tone is "I ask you to consider these experiences in sentencing my friend" or "when you consider the crime, I ask you also to consider these things my friend is done." The exception is a close family member who is directly impacted by the sentence — "I don't know how we can keep the house or keep the kids in school if my spouse goes to prison."
Not every lawyer agrees with these rules. But I find them more effective and the judges I've talked to find such letters more persuasive.