By Clayton T. Robertson (Criminal Defense / Civil Rights Attorney)
Clients occasionally require what's called a "mitigation packet" to help convince a prosecutor to reconsider their assessment of the case. This is a letter by the person's attorney with attached exhibits.
One part of this packet are letters of support from those who know the defendant well, including current or former employers, work colleagues, teachers or professors, clergy, mentors, coaches, sponsors, physicians, therapists, life-long friends, family members, current or former spouses, children, neighbors, community leaders, commanding officers (if there is a military background), and others who know you.
What's in a letter of support? The answer to this question depends, in large part, on the purpose of the mitigation packet. What is the goal? This goal will affect the tone, tenor, and types of letters provided to the prosecutor by the attorney.
Each person's letter should focus on their personal experiences with you. It depends on the person. If a close friend or relative saw how good and caring of a parent you are, then that's good. Another person might know you from work as your supervisor. Another from your role in a volunteer or charitable organization. Each person brings a different perspective. It's not cookie cutter.
The focus should be on YOU and your attributes and good deeds as supported by their personal experiences with you in whatever capacity they know you. So each one fills out a larger picture and story of who you are. And your story is not just a single day. YOUR STORY is YOUR LIFE and who YOU ARE.
Also, for any given case, sometimes we need to humanize you to a prosecutor and show some more personal aspects of your background. For example, if a mental health condition was partly responsible for the alleged incident, some letter writers might have insights into that condition, how you've struggled with it, and how you've tried to overcome it, so that's also an appropriate topic. Remember, the best letters are authentic and revealing in a credible way.
Here are a few standard guidelines for letter writers:
You may direct the letter to "To whom it may concern".
Introduce yourself in the first paragraph. Explain how you know the person asking you to write the letter.
Why do you want to write this letter on the person’s behalf? What makes him or her someone you want to support? (If you don't want to write the letter, then decline to write it.)
It generally is best to acknowledge being aware that the person has a court case (there is no need to talk about the case itself or express opinions about the person’s guilt or innocence or about the facts of the case and please never disparage the prosecutor or government or disparage other parties in the case).
Make it personal when describing the person’s traits and character and provide examples and stories of good deeds done by the person and his or her good character (e.g., hard worker, dedication to family, generosity, caring parent, responsible co-worker, respected, well-liked, productive, etc.).
Has the person positively impacted your life or the life of others? How so?
For example, what occasions are you aware of when the person helped others? Or went out of his or her way to be a positive influence?
Are there examples of how the person has improved his or her life?
Has the person positively dealt with hardships or setbacks in his or her life? How so?
Only talk about what you know or personally believe. Limit yourself to things for which you have personal knowledge.
Always be truthful. (This is the most important criteria, in addition to personally writing the letter.)
Write the letter yourself. Never allow another person to write the letter for you.
Conclude the letter with a strong statement of support summarizing your beliefs and opinions about the person.
Be concise and sincere. One or two pages is usually sufficient.
Type-written letters are preferred.
Sign and date the letter, and provide contact information (e.g., phone number, and address).
Edit/review the letter for spelling and grammatical errors.
Send/email the letter of support to the attorney representing the person who has asked you to write the letter.
If you are ever asked to write a letter of support for someone, don't ever feel pressured to do so. The most effective letters are honest and sincere. But if you choose to write one, take the time to write it effectively.
Finally, all letters should be dated, signed, and include the letter writer's contact information (address, phone number, and email address).