Friend being sentenced? Tips for writing better character letters than Asthon Kutcher and Mila Kunis

As the world knows, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis seriously bungled their assignment to write persuasive character letters on behalf of friend Danny Masterson, in the hopes of persuading a judge to not throw the book at him

Even if you’ve always followed the rules, you may have a friend or family member who gets into serious trouble and ends up in prison. That’s when you might be asked to write a letter on their behalf, describing their good qualities in the hopes of convincing a judge to show mercy.

A-list celebrity couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were in this exact situation. Danny Masterson, their longtime friend and TV sitcom co-star, needed them to write letters for him after he was convicted in May of two counts of rape for attacks in the early 2000s.

As everyone knows, Kutcher and Kunis completely botched this letter-writing assignment. After Masterson was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for the attacks, news organizations disseminated and dissected Kutcher and Kunis’ letters, which are now part of the public record.

People on social media pounced on Kutcher and Kunis for referring to convicted rapist Masterson as “a role model” and a big brother figure with “excellent character.” People referred to them as privileged celebrities whose “tone deaf” letters helped to perpetuate “rape culture.” The letters were “hurtful” and “retraumatizing,” according to Masterson’s accusers, with one, Chrissie Carnell Bixler, telling Kutcher that he was “as sick” as his “mentor.” It’s unclear how the letters reached Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Alameda, but one legal expert told this news organization that they were “counterproductive.”

This negative reaction raises several questions, including how Kutcher and Kunis could have written better letters that did not result in such a strong public backlash. The answers to this question may be useful to anyone who is asked to write a letter of support for a friend or family member who has run afoul of the law. Furthermore, the legal experts’ letter-writing advice can be applied to other situations, such as when you need to vouch for someone at work or in your personal life.

The goal of these letters…

According to Colleen McCormack-Maitland, deputy director of legal services at the Legal Action Center (LAC), these letters are common in criminal cases and are presented to a sentencing judge to balance out the “horrible” things the judge has learned about the defendant while reading the indictment or hearing testimony.

People who write these letters should never use them to re-litigate the defendant’s guilt, even if they are adamant that the system has treated the defendant unfairly. The trial has concluded, and the jury has delivered its verdict. “That’s not the forum for this,” said McCormack-Maitland, a former public defender whose New York-based organization works to re-establish employment, housing, and other opportunities for people with arrest or conviction records.

Do these letters have any effect?

The nature and seriousness of the crime, as well as the individual judge’s legal philosophy and views on sentencing and punishment, all influence whether the letters are welcomed by a judge, according to McCormack-Maitland and other legal experts. It’s often helpful to speak with the defendant’s attorney before writing the letter, as they can provide insight into the judge’s philosophy and temperament.

According to Tre Lovell, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, judges take several factors into account when sentencing defendants. They want to give victims justice and impose appropriate punishment. While they may be willing to give a defendant a second chance, particularly a first-time offender, they must also keep society in mind. “Judges are asking themselves, ‘Am I going to end up (in the news) as someone who let someone out and then they did something horrible?'” McCormack-Maitland explained.

Judges are required by law to impose specific sentences for specific crimes, but they frequently operate within a range of sentences, which can be “huge,” according to McCormack-Maitland. In some cases, character letters can help a judge see that a lesser sentence, such as probation, would be sufficient to teach a defendant a lesson.

When the crime is “egregious,” such as rape or murder, Lovell is skeptical that character letters will help much. “The victim’s statement will have a much greater impact,” said Lovell. He can imagine scenarios in which the letters could bolster the idea that the crime was out of character, or explain how the defendant was under extreme duress. Lovell sees the letters most useful in nonviolent crimes or when the defendant is a minor, when judges impose sentences that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.

Expressing regret can assist defendants.

When defendants accept responsibility for their crime, they are better able to demonstrate a capacity for change, which tells judges that they are less likely to re-offend. “If, by the time of sentencing, they’re still denying it, they’re done,” Lovell said. “If you don’t accept responsibility, judges believe you have the potential to do it again.”

With Kutcher and Kunis’ letters, Masterson’s lack of remorse was an issue.

At his retrial (the first ended in a hung jury), Masterson vehemently denied the charges and insisted he had consensual sex with his accusers. Shawn Holley, his attorney, stated that his legal team will file an appeal.

The position of Masterson presented difficulties for the more than 50 people who wrote letters on his behalf, including Kutcher and Kunis. It’s possible that the couple believed in Masterson’s innocence, but it’s clear that they didn’t want to say anything in their letters that would jeopardize their friend’s case.

However, their letters failed to acknowledge that Masterson was convicted of serious, violent felonies, according to Lovell and McCormack-Maitland. Friends who believe in the innocence of a defendant can still write an effective letter. They should not, once again, use the letter to retry the case. However, they can express concern about the gravity of the crimes, then pivot and graciously offer to tell the judge about the person they know, according to McCormack-Maitland.

According to the attorneys, Kutcher and Kunis’ letters brushed aside the victims’ life-altering pain. Instead, they devoted entire paragraphs to praising Masterson’s “innate goodness” and “caring nature.” In light of Masterson’s crimes, this praise rendered parts of Kutcher and Kunis appear “out of touch.” McCormack-Maitland explained.

When Kutcher and Kunis wrote about the impact a long prison sentence would have on Masterson’s 9-year-old daughter, she acknowledged that the letters were effective, given that it is well-documented that children can suffer life-long trauma when a parent is incarcerated. Aside from that, McCormack-Maitland called the letters “counter-productive.”

Masterson’s crimes were “trivialized” by Kutcher and Kunis.

The most troubling aspects of Kutcher and Kunis’ letters were when they praised Masterson’s “steadfast” commitment to “promoting a drug-free lifestyle.” McCormack-Maitland claimed the couple came across as villainizing drug users at a time when substance abuse is no longer considered a “moral failing.” Meanwhile, they praised Masterson for being a “great guy” who does not use drugs.

“To put Masterson on a pedestal because he doesn’t use drugs, when he’s just been convicted of rape, seems pretty out of touch in my opinion,” McCormack-Maitland said. “It gives the impression that they are unfamiliar with the issues, and it trivializes what he was accused of doing, which was serious.”

Others saw the couple’s emphasis on Masterson’s anti-drug lifestyle as an attempt to undermine the victims’ testimony after prosecutors accused the actor of drugging them before raping them.

Other ways than Kutcher and Kunis to write better character letters

According to McCormack-Maitland, Kutcher and Kunis mostly wrote about the person they knew 20 years ago — when they were all working together on “That 70s Show.” That was also around the time of the attacks, she noted.

The letters, according to Lovell, lacked specificity and failed to provide “unique” details that illuminated the person Masterson is now, particularly whether he’s learned anything or changed for the better since the crimes. That is why it is beneficial when defendants accept responsibility: Friends, for example, can write about how the defendants used their time in custody while awaiting trial and sentencing to attend therapy. Alternatively, they can bolster defendants’ accounts of how they’ve already begun to make amends for their crimes and continue to contribute to society.

It also helps when friends explain how they will continue to support the defendant while he or she is in prison or when the defendant is released.

“The judge wants to know that the defendant will not continue to be a risk to society, and that if he gets out sooner, he’ll have people who will support him, help him find work or housing, and give him incentives not to commit any more crimes,” Lovell explained.

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