H. Michael Steinberg has 38+ years of experience practicing Colorado criminal law. Mr. Steinberg strives to stay current with the ever changing aspects of criminal law issues and updates resulting in his extensive knowledge of successful criminal defense as well as appellate work. He is also an active member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Association, the Colorado Trial Lawyer's Association, and the Colorado and Arapahoe Bar Associations.
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Character Letters – A Guide From Your Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer

Character Letters - A Guide From Your Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer

By H. Michael Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – Attorney

Character Letters – A Guide From Your 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 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 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 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 inside knowledge of the Defendant. (See WHO below).

Character letters are a way to persuade a Judge, who is 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 written well, as described below, they have the potential to make a major difference in the 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 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, you should seek out highly respectable people, people with “credibility” such as community leaders, former or present police officers, and maybe even some with an impressive title. You are seeking to ask individuals whose character is impeccable and who have social standing in the community.

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 tips of what to include and what not to include in the letter. These are intended to be insights from an experienced Colorado criminal defense lawyer’s perspective.

Some lawyers I am sure would disagree with some of the insights I provide so seek out more than one opinion.

Some Ideas 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 always includes District Attorney for the purposes of this article) you increase your credibility account.

By telling the Judge that you are aware of the charges, when you refer to the Defendants 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.

2. Demonstrate How And How Long You Have Known The Defendant

A strong character reference will always be based on deep familiarity with the Defendant. Do not write a character letter unless you know Defendant fairly well. Acquaintance letters are almost worthless at best and can actually damage the defense at sentencing or in the eyes of the prosecutor.

You establish your credentials when you let the judge you are not only aware of the charges the Defendant’s face, but in the context of your knowledge of the Defendant’s life story, the charges can be better understood.

3. Make Your Character Letter Detailed And Comprehensive … But Not Too Long

While you will want include specific details in the character letter, that detail should address the qualities that are most relevant to this case. 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. You must use those two pages to help the Judge understand that the Defendant 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 wouild 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 colorado texture as well it provides context to a persons life. Be truthful, no hyperbole and make it sincere – speak from the 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 and naturally written specific details about why and how this person has such great character.

While it may be tough and require some digging – ask friends and family to search themselves and others who know the Defendant 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 the Judge’s sentencing decision ris 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 the 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 as to why you believe this Defendant, based on his character traits would be the kind of person to fee 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 ar detecting exaggeration. The worst result for a Defendant is for the Judge to discredit your account of the Defendant based on information the Judge has another source.

If you are factually accurate and tell the truth in your letter to a Judge. If you find you cannot tell the truth – if you can’t stay factual, then don’t write the letter.. say nothing… never lie.

Judges hate easily see through half-truths, so take your time to be completely honest, and not exaggerate the Defendant’s character.

7. Do NOT, In Any Way – EVER – Shift The Blame To The Victim

While it is as natural as breathing for a Defendant a family member, especially a parent to blame the victim for what happened in this case, if you learn nothing else from this article, do not make this mistake, do NOT criticize or blame the victim in the case. It will be the single most destructive thing you could do to the Defendant’s case if you go after the victim… even if what you say is true.

Leave the task of bringing out the mitigating facts in the case – for example – mutual combat in an assault case – to your 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, claims of innocence coin is attacking the fairness of the trial, the aggressiveness of the Prosecutor – DA, the mistakes of the Jury or their verdict or – above all, the unfairness of the Judge.

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 crime, you damage the victims direct and indirect and you invite the Judge to slam closed a door you may never have intended to 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 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 the Defendant to a place 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; loss of a home or a family farm and the like.

This happens very rarely and should be avoided in most instances because the DA will run with the bait and begin a comparison of the impact of the crime on the victim or victims in the case.

12. Try Not To Suggest A Specific Punishment Or Even Address The Possible Sentence

Judges best understand the law of sentencing. Recommending a specific results may be viewed by the Judge as interfering with the Court’s judgement. On the other hand, makinf a recommendation against jail or prison and consider “alternative However, you can request that the Judge not impose a jail sentence or consider alternative sentencing options such as work release or home detention if those sentencing options exist.

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 say the positives about the defendant in the character reference and leave it to the lawyer to make the submission on sentencing.

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 say the positives about the defendant in the character reference and leave it to the lawyer to make the submission on sentencing.

13. Find Out The Defendant’s Criminal History – And Acknowledge It

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 – especially for the same offense – before.

You cannot make the argument that the embezzlement committed by the Defendant will never happen again and was clearly out of character if he has prior convictions for the same kind of crime – such as theft related crimes.

14. Try To Tone Down The Emotion If Possible

Your clear and supportive character should clear and supportive, but never overly too emotional. 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, in most cases – extreme emotion means lack of control and lack of the calm persuasion of an adult – and well reasoned letter.

15. Write The Letter About The Defendant – Not You – Focus

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.

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 may backfire against the Defendant as the Judge may feel as if he or he 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 court, the DA – Prosecutor the Courthouse.

Get the letters to the criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible after they are requested. Group them in one email or 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 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 – please call them and you will see that this letter is nothing but sincere.

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. It is asking for both of these authorities to, essentially, exercise mercy.

Character letters give a sentencing 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 but to infuse him or her with humanity.

The impact of character references that have been written and presented on behalf of the Defendant cannot be understated and there will be cases where they provide information to a Judge that Judge cannot obtain from any other sources.

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 Judge or Defense Attorney on behalf of Defendant ( Judge or District Attorney will depend on the case – ask the lawyer)
From: Return address
Phone Number:

[HMS – Do not write “To Whom It May Concern”]

Paragraph 1 – The Introductory Paragraph

Here you tell the Judge or District Attorney who you is the person for whom are writing this letter and 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 do you know the Defendant – e.g. Mark is my brother, an old friend, a colleague at work, my spouse).

Paragraph 3 – How And When You First Met And Long Have You Have Known The Defendant?

Here you establish your credibility as a character reference by telling the Judge what you are about to tell the Judge is based on a long term relationship. 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.

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 believe they 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.

This paragraph – or additional paragraphs under this section – can be used to detail any help the Defendant has sought such as therapy, counseling, rehabilitation or other forms of treatment.
Here 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 is where you directly address the character of the Defendant. Here you write about the specific good things about him or her. You should write about the Defendant’s character traits for honesty, courage, love and more. You should provide poignant examples of these traits if you can. This is also a good place to recount your knowledge of these 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. If this is “out of character” for him to have committed the offense – here is where you tell the Judge or DA why that is. Here you can offering specific personal experiences or insights you have of the Defendant that will help the Judge understand the Defendant’s
true character.

Do NOT write that this crime was out of character if the Defendnt 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 use to tell the Judge that you and the Defendant both understand the gravity of the wrongs underly 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 the Defendant’s 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 be as brief as possible.

[HMS – Be careful here. Judges hate it when people try to suggest an actual sentence.]

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. Say anything else you can that might help his or her cause, and invite the judge to contact you if he would like further information. The completed example character reference letter for court looks like this:

Respectfully yours,


Your name

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.

Character Letters – A Guide From A Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer