Will character reference letters help my criminal case?

This is a question we get a lot at Guest and Gray. Clients want to know if character reference letters will help their case, or help them get a better plea offer. The answer is “it might help, but it can’t hurt”. I tell my clients that they should get as many letters as they can from the most credible/important people they know who are not relatives (letters from mom don’t really help). And that at the right time we might share these with the prosecutor (the timing is more art than science).

Let’s start with misdemeanors- if you are facing a DWI or pot case most prosecutors won’t think you are a scumbag criminal anyway (the exception being noob true believer ADAs), so there is not a lot of room to improve your character in their eyes because they should understand you just got caught in the unlucky lottery of the criminal justice system. One challenge is that misdemeanor prosecutors typically have hundreds of cases at any given time, and it can be hard to get them to review much new information on any one case.

Still, it can’t hurt. Will it get your case dismissed? No, but it can help move the needle a little in plea negotiations. For example, I’ve had cases where I was looking to get a deferred offer down to a pre trial diversion, and character evidence has helped in those situations.

Felony cases are different and I’d say the opportunity to help in those situations is greater, mainly because there is so much room to negotiate downward on a felony plea. Most prosecutors understand how serious it is to convict someone of a felony, or plea them to felony probation with a conviction (“straight probation”) and are willing to consider background information because of the gravity of the charges. Finally courts usually grant more time and resets to felony cases in the areas I practice, so a prosecutor may have more time to review information on a case. This is very court specific (for example we usually have more time on a Dallas/Kaufman County felony case than on a Rockwall felony case).

So yes, you should get some character reference letters together to share with your defense lawyer. At Guest and Gray we have also gone to issuing character background packets to our clients, so they can help us tell their story and explain some of the good things they are doing in life (working full time, going to school, volunteering, taking care of grandma etc). With this information clients have a chance at being considered more than an offense/criminal history/case number to the prosecutor.

If you are facing a criminal charge be ready to help your lawyer explain who you are, and why this charge you are facing shouldn’t define you. Obviously this works better for victimless crimes than say, agg assault with a deadly weapon, but the idea is the same. If your defense lawyers can humanize you with the ADA, and take you from being a “criminal defendant” to a human being, then you have made a lot of progress.

Prosecutors can be very resistant to this type of information, many develop thick skins and cynical disposition from hearing tales of woe from the defense bar. Some can’t even accept the idea that but/for the accident of their birth they could be the defendant they are looking down up today. Still, it never hurts to try and I’ve never had this type of information hurt a case. At worst, it will just not help.

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