What is a Character Reference Letter in a Federal Criminal Defense Case?

If you take your federal criminal case all the way to trial and lose, then eventually you will be facing a sentencing hearing. At that point, your energy, and your lawyer’s energy, will turn primarily to sentence mitigation. 

One of the tools that you can use to do this is to gather character reference letters. Yet there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

How many letters do you need?

You don’t want to bombard the judge with too many letters. Judges are busy. Three to five letters is generally enough.

You want more than one, since one person’s opinion can only carry so much weight. Yet you don’t want to send 20, 30, 40 letters to this judge’s desk. Just choose out 3-5 people who know you very well and who is willing to write the letter for you.

Who may write the letters?

Anyone may write a letter on your behalf, but there are a few features of a letter writer that will make those letters more impactful.

  • They’ve known you a long time.
  • They’re not necessarily a family member or friend.
  • Co-workers, teachers, ministers, people you’ve volunteered with.

Do not think that a fancy title will help you out. A letter from the secretary at your church who has known you for 20 years may help you out a lot more than a letter from a Senator who knows your Dad but met you once, in passing

When should the letters be sent?

You’ll send these letters prior to your sentencing hearing so that your character and level of remorse may be considered by the judge. 

How do the letters help?

While many federal crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences, judges may absolutely make the sentence even harsher. The idea is to get the smallest possible sentence so that you can serve your time and get on with your life. 

Reference Letter Tips

When you ask for a reference letter ask the writers to point to specific character traits and then to tell specific stories that demonstrate those character traits. For example, if the writer wishes to highlight that you are, in general, a kind and caring person, they might talk about how you’ve spent the past 5 years serving at your local soup kitchen.

General praises do not help. You want the writers to provide anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Obviously, this evidence needs to be true. 

Finally, advise your letter writers to avoid trying to make sentencing recommendations to the judge. That tends to offend judges. Tell them to stick to describing your character and activities, and leave what that should mean to the judge who will be reading the letter.

Get the Help You Need from a Federal Defense Attorney

Are you facing a federal investigation? Have you been charged with a federal crime? Reach out to Koch Law today. 

See also:

What is Self-Surrender?

Should You Testify on Your Own Behalf in a Criminal Case?

What is the Crime of Conspiracy?

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