I received a phone call from a defendant who told me that despite trying he was only able to collect one character reference letter.

After interviewing him, I learned why he was unsuccessful.

To begin, he still has a difficult time explaining why he pled guilty and why he would be going to prison. Therefore, when asking for people’s help, he was unable to explain what he did, and why their letter would be impactful.

Moving on, this defendant too easily gave people the way out. In fact, when asking for help he would say, “Don’t feel obligated to do this”, “It’s not that big a deal”, “In fact I feel bad for even asking you, it’s totally cool if you’re too busy.”

Besides the sentencing memorandum, and the defendant’s personal statement of responsibility to the court, character reference letters are essential to demonstrating why the defendant is more than their criminal charge.

Generating best in class character reference letters is a sales process—in needs to be nurtured and developed.

That process should articulate to your supporter, if you pled guilty, why you are more than some bad decisions you made. Further, you must express what you are learning from this experience. Then, you need to ask them to write a letter and share some experiences that will help the court better understand you.

Earlier this year a defendant called to tell me he had 90 letters, including some from politicians and famous people. Neither impressed me nor did his letters. They were full of cliches, “Paul is a great guy. He has always been kind to people.” No specifics, no real explanation of why they were in a position to offer specifics on his character. After hearing my feedback, he hired me to interview 10 of his supporters. We collaborated on a series of letters and turned in eight of them. Those eight letters, full of specifics, were better than the 90 letters of fluff.

Okay,  if your network agrees to write a letter, you must follow up. People are busy. Set a deadline and hold them accountable.

My suggestions?:

  • Form a list of people in your network.
  • Call them and tell them you need their help.
  • Tell them your story. Practice please. Get to the point, in other words. No excuses or “you know I didn’t have criminal intent, but hey it is what it is.” Try to avoid the cliches.

Then if they agree to help simply modify the letter I attach below. I sent this letter to my network back in 2007 after I plead guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

How many letters should you get? I turned in seven, I think. Some clients turn in 100 or more. Ask your lawyer. They might know that judge and have an idea of how many letters that judge would likely read.

Dear (insert name)

Please know how thankful I am that you took the time to speak with me. You may have sensed my nervousness during our call. Admittedly, I am still coming to terms with the reality of this situation. During these tough times my family and I feel a great deal of comfort knowing that we have friends willing to stand beside us.

As I mentioned during our call, I must reiterate that I accept full responsibility for my actions. I have to make better decisions moving forward, and that means making it clear that I alone to blame for the troubles that put me in this situation. I know this experience will be harder on my family, and I want to do all I can to let them know I am doing all I can to get through this as quickly as possible.

As of this writing, I am planning to plead guilty on February 25. While parts of this process remain unknown to me, I have been told by my lawyers that I should do all I can to prepare for the best possible outcome. While I do not yet know the outcome, I have been told there is a chance that I serve time in a federal prison camp.

In meeting with my lawyer recently, I asked them if there was anything specific I should be doing to prepare. Again, besides accepting responsibility, working hard to pay those legal bills, and spending time with family, I want to do my best to convey to the court that I am a good person, who made some decisions without fully considering how it would impact others and me.

My lawyers suggested I ask members in my support network to write a letter of support on my behalf. They also suggested I provide some guidelines that may make the letter stronger in the eyes of the court. To help guide you, I am writing this letter.

I have been told these letters will be placed in a binder, so it would be best if they are typed and on letterhead. If your letterhead does not make it apparent, please say something about your past or present profession, life’s work or career and tell for how long you have known me.

Then, please share any experience you have had with me that demonstrates my positive character traits. Mentioning my character traits will have much more impact than simply saying, “Justin is a great guy and I care for him dearly.” Your choice of words, viewpoint and experience will demonstrate that you are in a unique position to speak about our relationship and me.

I must reiterate that I am committed to making the most of this experience. I mention this because there is no need to make a complaint about the system, the mistakes I made or any suggestion that I am a victim. I am not. Our goal is to try to put my life into meaningful context. It is not necessary to ask the judge to take any particular action.

Please feel no obligation to write this letter. Our relationship, which I highly value, will not be impacted if you choose not to write a letter. I want to make that clear.

My lawyer has asked that my letters be addressed and mailed to the address below by (insert date and time). You can also email the letter to (insert lawyer email address).

Please address your letter as follows:
THE HONORABLE Stephen Wilson
RE: United States vs. Paperny – PUT CASE NUMBER

I am told these character letters can make a significant difference. I lack the skills to explain how grateful I am that you have taken the time to support me. Please know, I will continue to keep you apprised of my situation, and will continue to work hard to prove worthy of your support.


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