Does a Letter Before Sentencing Help?
In many cases, a defense attorney will encourage his or her client to write their judge before sentencing to humanize a defendant. Judges receive many of these such letters. So many, in fact, that they can lose their potency with the Court.
Every defendant is a person. They are somebody’s son or daughter. They have families, friends, and often children of their own. Putting a vulnerable, human face to the name a sentencing judge sees is a good thing. Normally.
When do These Letters Hurt?
However, take for instance a convicted drug lord who is purported to have been responsible for the murders of hundreds of people. He wrote such a letter to his judge pleading for mercy. As detailed in a recent article in the New York Times titled, “In 7-page Note, Drug Lord Asks a Judge for Leniency“.
Here is an excerpt from that article:
“Good day to you, sir,” the letter to the judge began. “I am humbly asking if you could be lenient on me.”
Judges receive letters all the time from defendants who are about to be sentenced, but this letter, seven pages long and neatly handprinted, came from no ordinary prisoner.
The writer was Christopher M. Coke, described by United States prosecutors as one of Jamaica’s most brutal drug lords. He led a trafficking ring from an armed stronghold in Kingston, moving guns and drugs between Jamaica and the United States, prosecutors said, and his soldiers patrolled the streets and guarded stash houses. He ordered murders, shootings and beatings, and, when one man stole drugs, the prosecutors said, Mr. Coke killed him with a chain saw.
Last year, Mr. Coke was arrested and sent to Manhattan, where he has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. He could receive a 23-year sentence.
And it was in that context that Mr. Coke, 42, took it upon himself to send a polite letter to the judge, Robert P. Patterson Jr. of Federal District Court.
Addressing him as “Justice Patterson,” Mr. Coke said he accepted responsibility for his actions, although he did not apologize in the letter. And he asked that the judge use his “discretion” to sentence him “below the guideline range.”
In doing so, Mr. Coke offered a list of 13 reasons, with some broken into subcategories. For one thing, he said, he had lost his mother recently. “I was told that while she was on her deathbed, she was crying and kept calling my name.”
And his 8-year-old son had been traumatized by his arrest, he said. “I was told that he is constantly asking for his daddy,” Mr. Coke explained, adding “He cries all the times since I am gone.”
The letter goes on to describe all the good things Mr. Coke has done for his community and whines that he’ll be deported after he completes his sentence:
Mr. Coke also complained that because he would be deported after serving his sentence, he would leave the country “without the possibility of ever visiting” his brother or other relatives who he said lived here.
Mr. Coke also described “charitable deeds and social services” that he said he had provided to his community, including efforts for the elderly, the unemployed, parents and a “back-to-school treat” for students that included school bags, books, pens, pencils and uniforms.
How This Hurts Defendants
In his letter, Mr. Coke tells his woeful tale of how his sentence will effect him. However, because of his perceived evil deeds, the next time his sentencing judge receives a similar letter, he may only remember the last time he read one. This could have no effect on his next sentence pronouncement, or it could make his decision even harsher.
Here’s the good news. Many judges want to see remorse and guilt. A well written letter to the sentencing judge taking responsibility for the actions a defendant has already plead guilty to (or been convicted of) can go a long way. Apologies and expressions of remorse go much further than trying to look like the victim. As seen in the letter written above, Mr. Coke never apologies for his actions which lead to his conviction.
This omission could mean the difference between leniency from the court and a harsher sentence. Time will tell in this case, but take heed when writing a letter to a sentencing judge.
Painting yourself as a victim is bad.
Expressing remorse for your sins is good.
Final Note on Letters to a Sentencing Judge – Give the Letter to Defense Counsel
When writing a letter of any kind to a federal judge, always try and submit the letter itself to defense counsel for submission. Sending letters directly to a sentencing judge is not commonly allowed. Doing so can is viewed as ex parte communication with the Court, which is against the rules.
Even if it is considered by the judge, the defense attorney should be the focal point of all communication with the Court and government prosecutors. Going around the defense attorney to communicate directly with a judge complicates matters and makes the job of the defense attorney that much harder.