Storytelling At Your Federal Sentencing
At Prison Professors, we interviewed Federal District Court Judges Mark Bennett and Stephen Bough about what factors they consider at a federal sentencing. These accomplished jurists both said that what matters is less about the attorney’s legal arguments and more about the reasons for why the federal defendant committed the crimes, the level of the federal defendant’s remorse, and how the defendant plans to turn away from criminal conduct.
Part of the sentencing mitigation process must therefore include telling your client’s story. As any person who studies marketing knows, data points are helpful, but the best way to share your business’s message is to employ storytelling.
So how do you tell the story at your federal sentencing?
1. Frame your client’s crimes in terms of their entire life arc.
If you have a young client, explain why the defendant’s youth contributed to their failure to resist impulses. If your older client has never been in trouble, then give the judge the client’s full life arc and explain how the crime was committed due to some aberrational factor that is unlikely to recur.
2. Support the story with unique facts and interesting description.
Studies in Spain asked research participants to read words with strong odor associations along with neutral words.
When subjects read the words with strong odor associations, the olfactory cortex lit up. If you’re client had an emotional turning point in their life that affected whether they committed a crime, then tell that story. Maybe it was a death in the family. Or maybe the client was found lying in a pool of his own urine with a needle dangling from their arm after a drug overdose. Tell that story in graphic detail. You just might trigger an emotional response from the judge.
3. Think about using sentencing videos to tell your client’s story.
The new trend in sentencing mitigation strategy is to use videos at sentencing to tell the defendant’s story. As Assistant Federal Public Defender Doug Passon notes, “As defenders, we must constantly seek out the most powerful ways to make the judge understand the reasons behind, and very often, the mitigating circumstances accounting for, the conduct at issue.” You can read Passon’s paper on why using videos can improve your federal sentencing outcome.