A Letter of Apology After a Guilty Verdict

by Jamison Koehler on December 16, 2011
Jefferson and Washington monuments


After finding my client guilty of simple assault, the judge orders my client to write a letter of apology to the complaining witness.

I can understand an apology after a guilty plea.  After all, acknowledgment of remorse could be an important part of the rehabilitation process.  What I don’t understand is the need for an apology after the defendant has challenged the charges at trial and lost.

A number of years ago in Philadelphia, I had a case that was right out of an afterschool special.  The complaining witness – an 85-year-old woman – had hired my client to wash her car.  At some point, my client went into the woman’s house to use the bathroom.  And at some point the woman discovered that cash was missing from the dining room table of her house.

I met with the client before trial to discuss trial strategy.  He said there was no way he was going to make the old woman testify.  He wanted to plead guilty but only if he could be given the opportunity to apologize to her for betraying her trust.

The prosecutor was surprised by this unusual condition but readily agreed.  The woman was brought up to the bar of the court at the time of the guilty plea, and my client apologized.

The woman looked at him.  “Young man,” she said, though my client was well into his fifties.  “You were forgiven at the very moment you took that money.  And, by the way, you did a very good job washing my car.”

It is, however, completely different after a lost trial. In that case, a defendant who has just been found guilty of a charge she has contested may not be feeling very charitable.  The order to write a letter of apology adds insult to injury.

My client will write a letter of apology, I tell the judge after consulting with my client.  But I cannot guarantee the apology will be a sincere one.

The judge is annoyed by this.  Having determined in her own mind that the defendant is guilty after considering all the evidence, the verdict for her has become the objective truth. Fine, she says. I’ll just order more community service instead.

4 Comments on “A Letter of Apology After a Guilty Verdict

  1. Dear Jamison,
    I’m really sorry this happened to your client. In a perfect world, I’d be able to turn the clock back and this wouldn’t happen, or at least he’d be able to write the letter instead of extra community service. I feel bad, as a prosecutor, that things turned out this way, especially after the honesty and integrity you displayed to the judge. In this season of giving, I hope you can see your way to forgiving the judge and letting this terrible even pass into history.
    Much love,

    PS Just practicing my insincere apology letter-writing skills. How’d I do? 🙂

    PPS I can totally see your point, seems incongruous after a not-guilty plea to then not be allowed to keep that stance of, “But I didn’t do it!” Interesting.

  2. You were being insincere? I particularly liked the part about my honesty and integrity. And the “much love.”

    But at least you see the dilemma, particularly when the defendant has taken the stand. Then he has to acknowledge responsibility and incriminate himself on a perjury charge?

  3. Having a convicted person’s punishment depend on an apology or “accepting responsibility” seems like cruel humiliation. It’s as if the court doesn’t think people will believe its verdict, as if this were some sort of a Stalinist show trial: “See, not only was he found guilty, but now he has confessed his crimes!”

    When a child does something wrong, you make him apologize, as a way of teaching civility, restoring order, and relieving strife. But how much does this really help with adult criminals? And I’m pretty sure it gets the reward system backwards: Who’s more likely to give a sincere-seeming apology, a person who’s actually innocent, or a deceptive psychopath?

  4. The most challenging part of selecting the right strategy is how to balance probabilities: the probability that the apology will avoid a law suit (and improve the relationship with the client) versus the probability that it might lead to one. Keeping track of whether your clients fall into the potentially litigious category is never easy.

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