Letters to the Judge: a guide in California criminal cases STAFF PICK

Posted over 4 years ago. Applies to California, 14 helpful votes

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If you are the defendant, charged with a crime, THE JUDGE WILL NOT READ YOUR LETTERS.

You should have a lawyer representing you in a criminal case... so let him or her do the talking. Except in very limited circumstances, judges cannot communicate with the prosecution or the defense unless both parties are present. Most of the time, the judge will give your letter back to your lawyer... but I have seen some judges provide a copy to both the defense attorney and the prosecution. You have the potential to seriously hurt your case.

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Exception: sentencing

There is one exception. If you're the defendant, the judge WILL read letters you have written at sentencing. Instead of sending a letter directly to the court, you should submit the letter to your lawyer, who may ask you to make changes. Follow the same guidelines for sentencing letters from friends and family, below.

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What if you want to fire your Public Defender?

If you can't afford to hire a new attorney and you want the judge to appoint a different lawyer, just tell your lawyer you want to make a Marsden motion. Your lawyer will tell the judge, who will clear the courtroom except for your lawyer and essential personnel, and you can explain why you want a different lawyer. The District Attorney and members of the public are excluded so they don't learn confidential details of your case.

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Sentencing: Letters in support of a friend or relative.

Many times, people want to write letters to the judge when a friend or relative is being sentenced. These letters should ALWAYS be sent to the defendant's lawyer, not to the judge or probation officer. The defendant's attorney may want you to rewrite the letter if your comments are inappropriate. In my office, I provide a sample letter that provides guidelines for people who want to write letters on behalf of my clients.

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Basic format for a sentencing letter

Your letter should be no longer than two pages, typed, addressed to the judge and, if possible, written on your business letterhead. If you don't have letterhead, then be sure to include your address and telephone number; a letter without this information cannot be authenticated, so it's pretty much worthless.

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Sentencing letters: Make it clear you understand what you're writing

I recommend a first paragraph that shows you understand why the defendant is in court, and that you aren't writing a job reference letter. If you know somebody has been convicted of a bad offense, but are willing to support him anyway,that says a lot more than a generic "John Doe is a great guy" letter. For instance, this is an actual excerpt from a sample letter I sent to a client's friends and family: "I am writing on behalf of John Doe, who is being sentenced in your court. I understand that he entered a guilty plea to a violation of Penal Code 288(1)(1), lewd act with a minor, and that the offense involved fondling an eight year old relative under her clothing." The judge was very impressed at the support my client received, despite the shocking nature of the offense, and gave my client probation with a couple of months in jail, not the six years the Probation Report recommended.

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Other things to include in a sentencing letter

Each of the following items should be no more than one or two short paragraphs. 1) Briefly introduce yourself to the judge, explaining how long you have lived in the community and what you do for a living. (Judges take people who have jobs, or are retired, a lot more seriously than dope dealers or panhandlers). 2) Explain how long you have known the defendant, and how you came to be acquainted (Work, school, church, mutual friends, civic groups, etc.) 3) Briefly tell the judge about the good qualities you have observed in the defendant, such as honesty, hard work, dedication to family, generosity, etc. 4) Include a brief story about something that demonstrated the qualities you listed in the last paragraph. 5) Tell the judge about your hopes for the defendant's future, such as a career, school, and taking care of a family. 6) Thank the judge for reading your letter.

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NEVER say the defendant is innocent or was wrongly convicted.

Remember Step 6? Are you saying you only support the defendant because you think he's innocent.... but you'd hate him if you thought he really did it? Your support means a lot more if you know the defendant was found guilty, but support him or her anyway. The judge knows more about the evidence than you do, and has the power to throw out the conviction if there wasn't enough evidence.

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NEVER attack the victim or call the witnesses liars.

Your letter is to show the support for the person being sentenced; blaming others just pisses off the judge and your letter will do more harm than good. I once had a client who admitted molesting a 14 year old girl, and a family member wrote a letter calling the girl awful names and blaming her for my client's actions. Fortunately, the letter was sent to my office, so it never made it to a judge, who would have been very angry after reading it.

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NEVER criticize the police or the justice system.

Again, you are supporting the defendant, not appearing on Oprah or Dr. Phil to whine about your feelings. I once had an angry mom who wrote a lengthy letter to a juvenile court judge about her daughter's case, complaining about the police and the judge... but never once said anything good about her daughter. The judge had planned to dismiss the case but, after reading mom's letter, put the girl on probation so she could get counseling. I asked mom why she sent the letter, and she gave me the Oprah Show response: "I just wanted my feelings to be heard!" Unfortunately, that seemed more important than her daughter's well being.

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Final thoughts

Like all Avvo legal guides, this is only intended to be a general introduction to a complicated subject. Whether you are the defendant in a criminal case, or a family member or friend, ALWAYS talk to the defendant's attorney before trying to write a letter to the court. Please understand that this is a general discussion of legal principles by a California lawyer and does not create an attorney/client relationship.

Additional Resources

Robert L. Marshall: Chico, California criminal defense attorney

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