How to Write a Character Letter

How to Write a Character Letter

How to Write a Character LetterWhen a client has asked us to negotiate a plea deal on a criminal or traffic case, most of the time our attorneys are able to reach an excellent result dealing directly with the prosecutor or State’s Attorney assigned to that particular court room. It may take one or more dates to achieve the desired result, but usually, negotiations are conducted directly between the local prosecutor or Assistant State’s Attorney and your attorney from Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC.

Sometimes however, because of the nature of the case, the severity of the allegations, pressure from the victim or the defendant’s extensive criminal / traffic history, pre-trial negotiations may become more complicated. The prosecutor may in those circumstances be resistant to the desired sentence that your attorney is attempting to achieve. When this happens, the attorneys at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC will sometimes strategically decide to employ a mitigation package to help you further.

As part of such a mitigation package, it is usually is a good idea to include character letters written on a client’s behalf. A character letter should be able to provide the reader with a solid understanding of who the client is, what life experiences they may be going through, and a description of the positive things that they are doing to overcome the situation in a responsible and productive way.

What is a Mitigation Package?

A mitigation package (sometimes referred to as a Mitigation Packet) is a collection of documents (including character letters), and sometime even pictures or videos with a cover letter that is written by your attorney at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC in which we explain why our client (you) should be given extra consideration or receive a specific reduced sentence or alternative sentence. It’s usually presented to the prosecutor assigned to the case or to their supervisor in the State’s Attorney’s Office. A more thorough explanation of this can be found in another article of ours titled: “What is a Mitigation Package & How Can it Help You?”

Usually, a mitigation package is presented in an effort to convince the prosecutor to do one or more of the following:

  • Reduce or eliminate certain criminal penalties or jail time
  • Secure a reduced (less serious) criminal or traffic charge
  • Dismiss certain criminal or traffic charges

To Whom is a Mitigation Package Directed?

When a mitigation is determined by your attorney to be a good idea, it can be used in one or more of the following ways:

  • Presented directly to an Assistant State’s Attorney for cases in which that prosecutor has the discretion to act on the request without permission from their supervisor, and/or
  • Presented to the State’s Attorney Supervisor in cases in which the Assistant State’s Attorney needs supervisor permission to act on the request, and/or
  • Presented directly to a local prosecutor (local prosecutors usually do not have supervisors, although sometimes they need to get approval from their local police department head), and/or
  • Presented to the Judge when a reasonable negotiated plea cannot be obtained from the prosecutor, or your attorney believes that the prosecutor is acting unreasonably. This is typically done within the context of a 402 conference or a blind plea.

In some cases (usually traffic cases or non-felony cases) the prosecutor assigned may be a “local prosecutor”, an attorney who is typically a local attorney that the city or village has hired to handle all their prosecutions. Local prosecutors usually work alone or with a small group of attorneys from their law firm.

Most of the time however, the prosecutor is likely to be an Assistant State’s Attorney, an attorney who is one of many attorneys employed by a particular county in their State’s Attorney’s Office. In large Illinois counties such as Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, Will or McHenry, such offices may employ dozens or even hundreds of such Assistant State’s Attorneys.

Who Should Write a Character Letter for Me?

The character letter must come from a solid and reliable source with updated contact information just in case the prosecutor wants to follow up and confirm that the client’s letters are legitimate. One often overlooked fact is that WHO writes the client letter may be just as impactful (good or bad) as that of WHAT is contained in the letter. For example, if a client letter is written by someone who is in a great deal of criminal trouble themselves or by someone who has a significant criminal history (that upon closer inspection wouldn’t be that impressive), a client may not want to ask that person for a letter. Of course, we encourage our clients to give us as many letters as possible, as we can always decide not to submit questionable letters if we think they may be counterproductive to achieving our goals.

But who should these character letter-writers be? Most of us only socialize with close friends and family, so usually, these are the types of people who write character letters for our clients; especially because you may be hesitant to tell others about your present situation. Whenever you have the opportunity to get a letter from a teacher, professor, religious leader, or employer though, these are often viewed as especially good.

But do keep in mind that when asking another person for a character letter, you don’t necessarily have to tell them about the specifics concerning what the letter will be used for. You can just tell them that you just need a character letter and then the contents of that letter doesn’t necessarily need to specifically include any mention of your current criminal or traffic situation.

To Whom Should a Character Letter be Addressed to?

Often times a character letter is used as part of a mitigation packet sent to a prosecutor or supervisor in the prosecutor’s office. In other instances, a character letter could be part of a mitigation hearing during sentencing or could even be used during a conference with the Court. So, because we can’t always be sure ahead of time to whom the letter will be given (the prosecutor or the Judge), it’ usually best to address such letters generically as “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN”. Also, when your letter is addressed in this way, the letter writer doesn’t need to know that it may be used for a court proceeding. What is always most important though, is the content and quality of the information provided.

What Should be Included in a Character Letter?

What makes a good character letter is often case specific, but generally there are a few must-haves that your writer should try to include. Remember, there is no magic formula, but a character letter should try to answer the following questions:

  • Why does the writer know the client?
  • How long have they known the client?
  • What is their sense or impression of the client’s character based upon their relationship and their history?
  • What is their understanding of the nature or seriousness of the legal situation? How so? (Again, if you’re asking someone who doesn’t know about your legal issues, then skip this part).
  • What is their insight into the impact the case is having on the client, their feelings, work, education, or life in general? (Skip if the writer doesn’t know about your legal situation).
  • What is their understanding of the steps the client has taken to learn from this or right a wrong, including restitution if applicable? (Skip if the writer doesn’t know about your legal situation).
  • What is their sense or impression of the future that a client might have if they were given the resolution/chance/opportunity which is being requested for them or not given that chance? (Skip if the writer doesn’t know about your legal situation).
  • What is their willingness to support the client throughout their specific legal situation? (Skip if the writer doesn’t know about your legal situation).

Anything Else to Include in a Character Letter?

The letter should always try to include some insights into who the client is as a person. All too often, a client accused of a crime or serious traffic matter, but is seen as just another number or court file or is boiled down to the content of their criminal background or traffic history. Any information that the writer can provide that can help us humanize the client or more accurately display the positive nature of the client’s life is always helpful. One way to do that is to include a client’s interests or goals for the future beyond this case.

Are There Things to Avoid in a Character Letter?

Yes! While the letter should touch on the nature or seriousness of the case (for those writers that know about the legal case), a writer should be careful with their tone and description of the situation. The letter should never sound like it is trying to minimize or downplay the charges or the seriousness of the criminal or traffic charges. Doing so only tends to discredit the rest of the letter and shows that maybe the writer has been misinformed by the client or worse, even lied to.

If there is a victim involved, it is always best to leave them out of the letter unless there are good things to report on; for instance, if the client is repaying restitution, has reconciled or has made amends, etc. The letter should never blame the victim, make excuses or shift the focus from the defendant’s conduct.

As always, if there is a question about what is appropriate to include, consult with your attorney to determine the best way to present the information. Remember, the goal of a character letter is to highlight the often-overlooked humanizing or good parts of a client who has been accused of a crime.

Speak to One of Our Experienced Attorneys Today

The legal team at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC has many dozens of years of experience in dealing with the best ways to handle both criminal and traffic charges. Sometimes, the best choice is to plead not guilty and do a trial, while in other circumstances, it may be best to take part in negotiations In those case in which negotiations seems like the best choice, a mitigation package (including character letters) may be advised, while in other cases, it may not be the best idea for strategic reasons. Every case is different. When you hire our legal team, we’ll help you decide the best path for your particular circumstances. Contact our attorneys at (312) 644-0444 for a free consultation.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : April 10, 2023