Blog Article 

 Expert Testimony and Sentence Mitigation 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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Are you facing a sentencing hearing? Then prepare. That’s the message we give to all of the people who contact us at Clients hire us to do sentence-mitigation work. People who lack resources should use our free content as a resource.

Tell a Story:

shon at courthouse

Preparing for sentencing is about telling a story. Judges know the laws, but lawyers will argue over judicial matters. That’s their job, and we can predict their positions. Expect prosecutors to argue for stiff sentences. Expect defense attorneys to argue for leniency.

At Prison Professors, my partner Shon Hopwood and I are always telling stories. I’m Michael Santos.

Shon and I have to tell the stories. Those stories helped us through decades in prison. They helped us succeed through prison and beyond. We build stories today to advance our careers. Shon is now a lawyer and a professor of law at Georgetown. I am a founder and principal in many business ventures. Our stories help us succeed. They show that we’re more than the bad decisions of our past. They help people see us differently. Use these same strategies to argue for a lower sentence and to advance your case.

We use our expertise to create stories to help defendants. Lawyers use stories to support arguments for lower sentences. Defendants find hope through the stories. Our stories show why the defendant is worthy of mercy.

Defendants help their cause when they build a story. If the defendant comes from a background that includes many crimes, explain. Offer details. If the defendant comes from a privileged position, explain. Offer details. Either way, the judge will want to know. What drove the defendant? What influences led to the crime? How did the defendant respond? What decisions led to the criminal conviction? By explaining more, a defendant helps his cause.

But take caution. Not all stories are good stories. The defendant should own his decisions, good and bad. If he cannot, it may be best to remain silent. On the other hand, if the defendant wants mercy, a good story can help.

Good stories are not boilerplate. A boilerplate story will hurt more than help. Judges will see boilerplate stories as being contrived, inauthentic. They must be personal.

The judge will benefit from details. No detail is too small. Bring the cliche to life: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

A good story will highlight challenges the person faced. The judge will see him or her as a human being. Give a different view than the prosecutor will present. Then back the story up with expert testimony.

Expert Testimony:

Some defendants benefit from expert testimony. Our team can provide expert testimony in a courtroom. We have unimpeachable credentials. They show that we know how to succeed through prison. We explain the nuances of prison and how policies will influence a defendant.

My partner, Shon Hopwood, recently provided expert testimony in a sentencing hearing. The sentencing judge sent out the following tweet after Shon’s testimony:

“Professor Shon Hopwood (Georgetown Law) testified as an expert witness in a very contested sentencing this afternoon. Very enlightening.” (Tweet from federal judge Mark Bennett [@Markwbennett]. He sent it on August 23, 2017.)

What could Shon Hopwood offer in a sentence hearing? A lot!
The defense team hired Shon as an expert witness. He could help the judge understand. How would a sentence influence life in the federal prison system? How will other people in prison respond to the defendant? How will the sentence influence prospects for success upon release?

Shon’s testimony gave the judge a new view. Without it, only the government’s version of events would exist. Experts give the judge new data to consider. The judge takes that information into his calculus. The end result was a lower sentence. Hiring Shon to testify as an expert witness proved a good investment. It influenced the judge to impose a sentence that was four years less than what the prosecutor requested. What’s that worth?

An expert witness may help craft a story. And a good story is an effective sentence-mitigation strategy. Help the judge understand. First, a person must identify with the victims. Too many defendants take the wrong approach. They describe how the arrest, conviction, and sentence will influence their life. That’s not relevant. Focus on the victim. Describe what you learned from the experience. Don’t talk about missing your kids. Don’t talk about finding religion. Don’t talk about your loss. Focus on the victim.

Next, express remorse. Defendants should expect prosecutors to be cynical. Judges know prosecutors. They know that prosecutors will be cynical. Prosecutors weave similar arguments in every case. “The defendant is sorry because we caught him.” Don’t let the argument surprise you. Take action. Prepare to overcome the argument. The prosecutor will resist a plea for leniency.

By expecting resistance from prosecutors, defendants can take action. They can show they’re remorseful for the bad decisions they made. They can help the judge understand influences. What led them into this predicament? They can offer expert testimony that lawyers may rely upon. A good mitigation strategy will take advantage of every resource. A person should invest time, energy, and resources. Prepare to make the biggest sale ever. Make the case for mercy.

At Prison Professors, we must protect the identity of our clients. In our free brochure—which anyone can download—we offer case studies. Those case studies show partial results of our work. They don’t show the entire picture. We cannot disclose in-court, expert testimony. We cannot discuss cases under seal. We cannot show the value we provide to defendants during our one-on-one interviews and counseling sessions. Yet the brochure provides insight into mitigation strategies.

Let me tell you about one case. There was a $15 million loss in a financial crime. A probation officer recommended a sentence of seven years. Prosecutor’s cited the person’s advanced degrees and privileged background. They argued he was more culpable because he should have known better. Prosecutors requested 15 years, double what probation asked for. They dismissed his mitigation effort. But that wasn’t the last word. In court, the defendant presented expert testimony along with his mitigation story. He showed the influences that led to his crime. He brought in several experts, including a psychiatrist. The judge listened. The judge ruled in the interest of justice. He said 15 years would not be justice. He considered human factors. End result: the defendant did not get the 15 years prosecutors requested. He did not get the seven years probation recommended. Good sentence-mitigation contributed to a sentence of four years. And that was for a $15 million loss.

Defendants may not have resources to hire experts. They cannot afford to avoid a sentence-mitigation strategy. We offer free content through None of that content is boilerplate.

But defendants who lack resources to hire us can learn from our articles, our blogs, and our videos. They can use the free content as a guide to help them tell their story. Make it personal. Provide details.

All lives matter, and all have different circumstances. Use those circumstances to show why justice requires a lower sentence.

Let your story lead to mercy at sentencing. Perhaps an expert witness can help. Subscribe to our channel on YouTube for more insight. Visit us at For personal assistance, contact [email protected], or call 415-419-1728. We can help!

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