Writing a letter of character reference.
May 20, 2014 9:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 48 year old guy and in high school there was a group of 5 of us who were very tight. We remained tight through college and then on into family life. Then about 15 years ago one guy drifted off with his family. We all eventually lost contact with him. Maybe a phone call one Christmas or another.

Now, in the last couple of years, we've been contacted by his now ex-wife and his sister as well. Apparently there was an acrimonious divorce, some custody struggles and general divorced-kid rebellion. At some point one of his daughter's teenage friends accused him of inappropriate sexual contact and now he sits in jail awaiting trial.

His ex-wife and sister have asked each of us friends to write letters of character reference. So I have a dilemma. I can certainly attest to his character while I knew him, but years have passed and I don't have any way of confirming that he is being wrongly accused. I feel uneasy about making statements like "He never would have done such a thing". I hope that he wouldn't, but it seems to me that everyone is capable of such things, given the right circumstances. I'm not excusing such actions, it's just that no one believes their friend would do such a thing. I don't know what his mental state was at the time. Etc.

So two questions:

1. What are general rules of thumb for writing such a letter?

2. What do I do with my uncertainty about what might/could have happened?

posted by humboldt32 to Human Relations (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Write a letter based on your experiences with him, i.e., "Joe Blow always struck me as a responsible person, who did X, Y and Z to demonstrate this responsibility." Etc. Stick to making reference to your direct experience with and knowledge of him.
posted by dfriedman at 9:14 AM on May 20, 2014

1. If it makes you uncomfortable. Don't. I wouldn't.
2. No one knows what happens behind closed doors. It could be true, it could be a farce. None of your business at this point since you're not close friends.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:14 AM on May 20, 2014

I wouldn't write one. If the allegations are true, you'd feel terrible if your letter got him a lighter sentence. If they aren't true, why does the ex-wife/sister have to reach back 15 years to find a character reference? Can't anyone he knew more recently testify as to his current character?
posted by desjardins at 9:21 AM on May 20, 2014 [27 favorites]

You gotta keep the back of your bro. For all the court knows he has been creepy as shit his whole life, and you can at least dispel that without lying about anything else.
posted by jjmoney at 9:21 AM on May 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Fifteen years ago...? I would find it an odd if not wholly inappropriate request. You can't be much of a character reference; you know nothing of his fortysomething self.

It also seems red-flaggy that he would have such a limited pool of references to draw on.

How awful if he is wrongly accused, but it doesn't sound like you'd be able to help even if you were confident that he was. IANAL but from the cheap seats this even sounds potentially damaging, making clear as it does that he does not have many/any/close character references now. Is his attorney behind the requests from the ex and the sister, or...?
posted by kmennie at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just tell his family "I don't really know Joe all that well anymore, and I feel uncomfortable being a character reference." Desjardins has an excellent point. WHY do they need to go back to high school friends?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you say just exactly what you know to be true, I think your conscience will be clear. I used to be close to this guy, at the time he was like this, I haven't been in touch in x years.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:23 AM on May 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

2. What do I do with my uncertainty about what might/could have happened?

If your uncertainty keeps nagging at you, I think it's perfectly acceptable to let them know that you're uncomfortable writing the letter, since you haven't been in contact with him in 15 years.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:25 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The burden is not on you or any other character reference to prove or disprove that he is being wrongly accused. Your letter will not make or break the case. If you decide to write the letter, just describe what he was like when you knew him and how long it has been since you have had any significant contact.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:27 AM on May 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Someone I cared about very much in high school is an alcoholic arsonist who stole $2800 from me. Who we are at 18 doesn't always have much bearing on who we are at 40. You really don't know him anymore, so a character reference would be inappropriate.
posted by something something at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

It's certainly reasonable to be uncomfortable about writing a reference for this fellow at all, but if you include the note "I've spent little time with xxxxxx in the past fifteen years, but in my experience he..." it'll certainly be clear to those reading that you are offering a view of the past, not the present.
posted by mr. digits at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2014

Not just no, but hell no. If he's a fine, upstanding guy, he doesn't need to look back 15 years.
posted by corb at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would write the letter, but I would stick to just the facts as I knew them personally, and I would avoid any speculation about whether he was capable of such an act.

I actually faced a somewhat similar situation when I wrote a character reference for a former professor of mine. He was being accused of sexually harassing a student who did a research project in his lab. The student and I did not overlap, so I had no knowledge of what might have transpired between them. Interestingly enough, though, a few years later I bumped into another person who DID work in his lab during the time in question, and she claimed that the charges were trumped-up (which was my suspicion all along, given what I knew about his character).

Anyway, I was glad I wrote the letter, though I don't think it actually made any difference in the end. The professor left the university not long afterwards -- not sure if he quit or was fired.
posted by alex1965 at 9:30 AM on May 20, 2014

It's entirely reasonable for you to not write the letter if you don't want to.

If you do, stick to what he was like when you knew him and don't speculate about whether he is guilty or not. Bear in mind that regardless of whether you write or not, it won't have a real impact on the case. I'd go with whatever will give you the most peace of mind.
posted by mlle valentine at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2014

I don't know that my first assumption would be "this guy doesn't have anyone else to write the letter other than people who haven't seen him in 15 years," it would be more like "they want to show that he was always a consistently good person going back even to college".

I would still not write the letter though.
posted by elizardbits at 9:32 AM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

15 years is a long time. If you feel compelled to write the letter, make it clear that you have been out of touch for that long and just stick to what he was like when you knew him.
posted by radioamy at 9:39 AM on May 20, 2014

I can certainly attest to his character while I knew him, but years have passed and I don't have any way of confirming that he is being wrongly accused. I feel uneasy about making statements like "He never would have done such a thing".

If they are asking you to make statements like that, or are feeding you lines, I would decline.

If not, I would write the letter, and be factual, and not editorialize or speculate.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:39 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify, I still hold this guy dear to my heart, as do I his sister and ex. So patently refusing is an option I'd prefer to avoid. Yes the lawyer is asking for these letters and I believe, it's not that he has no current pool of references to pull from, but that we represent folks that know him "best", "longest?"
posted by humboldt32 at 9:43 AM on May 20, 2014

Also, no they're not asking my to say such things. That's my interpretation of the purpose of the letter.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:45 AM on May 20, 2014

You definitely don't say "he couldn't have done this", just make observations about what you knew of his good character before. You're not providing the only evidence here. If you knew him to be a gentleman, say that, it does not guarantee that he is a gentleman now. If you ever had any questions about that fact, decline. Did he get pushy with girls, ever? Say anything about being attracted to adolescent girls when he was in his late twenties and thirties? Would you have trusted him in college to date your hypothetical little sister? If those sorts of questions, absolutely don't do it. But if you have none of those qualms, you are definitely not saying that he is innocent. You are only saying that this behavior is inconsistent with what you knew of his younger self. Then a more recent friend, hopefully, will say that it's inconsistent with what they know of him now. And then that's still not going to be an automatic win--it's just one piece of the puzzle.

But absolutely make it clear that you're not speaking for today. Just, yeah, if he was always just a little bit weird with women, 15+ years ago, then that's likely to have carried on today. If he was never even a little bit weird with women then, then that carries some weight, too. Some. Not all.
posted by Sequence at 9:45 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Write about what he was like when you did know him, and end with a line like "I do not know the details of his current situation as we have not been in touch since 1998, when we lost contact after I moved to another city" (or whatever). You've done your best for the sake of your old friendship but made it clear you're not taking a stand on what's going on now.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:50 AM on May 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I use letters like this often in my practice of law. What I'm looking for is someone who can attest to his general reputation, and their own experience with the person. Obviously, you put in the letter that you've had little contact with him in the last 15 years. The letter actually has less value if you make sweeping, overbroad statements such as "he would never do something like this", because you don't know that, and it makes you sound overly biased towards him. Just state your own experience with him and your opinion of him, based on your experience.
posted by Happydaz at 9:59 AM on May 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

You know, let's say he did all this and you do write a letter that says, " I knew Joe from 1985 to 1993 and he was a stand-up guy. I can't attest to his current situation, but I know he showed ____ by doing _______ when we were teens." Maybe the sentencing judge will see that there is some hope from him and he'll get more rehabilitation services, instead of a locked door for life. Maybe someone will see some hope.

So I'd respond by saying you can write it, but that you'll be noting that you haven't been in contact with him since 19XX. If they are reaching back that far, he may well have no current references, which raises red flags. But perhaps he got involved with drugs or had a mental illness and your letter could at least give the judge some hope that he could be rehabilitated...if he can. Make it about when you did know him and your hope for the person you knew - the hope that, with proper supports, society could help him, rather than leaving him for the discard pile.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:04 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have found character reference letters from various court cases when researching the peter writers for background checks.

Any letter will be public record, and in this day and age, searchable.

Just FYI
posted by jbenben at 10:16 AM on May 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'd say write the letter, sticking to what you know about him and not speculating on the circumstances of the case or if he "could have done it." The jury will decide that.

The prosecution will be doing everything in their power to convince the jury he is is guilty, *whether he did it nor not.* And if they get a guilty verdict, they will do everything they can to get him the longest, most punitive sentence possible.

Even if he did do it, you should still write the letter. You're not "trying to get him off," you're giving the judge and jury evidence that will help them make a fair decision.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:16 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you write this sort of letter, you first establish who you are (so the judge knows how or why to consider your judgment useful); then you describe how you know who the defendant is (again, so the judge knows how or why to consider your opinion useful); then you state your opinion of the defendant's character. If you have a neutral reason for no longer associating with the defendant (you moved, you went to different colleges, whatever), mention those neutral reasons. Don't speculate on the charges or the defendant's guilt or the motives of the accuser. Don't mention the acrimonious divorce or anything that you do not have personal knowledge of.

For example your letter might read like this:

Dear Whom I am Told to Address:
I am Person. I have been a Professional Keeper of Shoehorns for 15 years in Town, where I live with Spouse of 20 years. In my neighborhood, I serve on the Keep Our Parks Clean Committee and am an active volunteer with the No Squirrel Left Behind Program. Defendant is a childhood friend of mine from Village where we both grew up.

Although I have not been in close contact with Defendant since 2000, when I moved to Town, we had been the best of friends all through high school. We were both on Team Sport and worked at Local Shop for the entirety of high school and our parents were in the same Bridge Club.

Defendant was always Adjective, Adjective and Adverbly Adjective on Team Sport. We also trusted him best to work the widgets at Local Shop because Reasons Why. During my close association with Defendant, I knew him as an Adjective person.

[You can put in an explanation of your motive for writing, here, if you feel comfortable with it. Something like "I chose to write this letter because of the respect I had for defendant in high school, when he refused to let me drive home after a party where I had too many beers."]

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2014 [17 favorites]

As others said, sometimes courts or lawyers or other bodies want to get a full picture of the person's life and may ask for long-ago references. I don't think it's weird to write about how he was when you knew him, and be clear that "we fell out of touch 15 years ago and I have had little contact other than occasional Christmas calls" or whatever. Don't make broad statements about who he is or isn't or what he would or wouldn't do; do say a couple of nice things about his character back then ("kind and generous" or "honorable and stand-up" or whatever he was); do tell a specific anecdote or two that supports your assessment. Stick to firsthand knowledge and descriptive observation based on that ("he was a great person back then" whatever). I've done a couple of these that reached back into the past -- one for someone's immigration, when the lawyer wanted people from the person's whole life saying they were never a teenaged hooligan, etc., and another for a background check for some government agency which seemed to me like they just basically wanted to verify that I knew this person and we'd interacted and they weren't murdering people 24/7 in high school. Mine was basically like crush's template: I am so-and-so and do these things, I knew Jane in high school from these years to those years, Jane was smart and funny and kind and we used to go to the mall a lot. A couple of specific instances where I saw Jane being kind were, blah and blah. While we have not been in touch since 1994, I remember her fondly; when she contacted me to ask me to write this letter, I was happy to do so. If I can provide any further information to assist you in this matter, I can be reached at contact info. There's no reason to be coy or pretend you're appearing out of the blue or have any knowledge you don't. Just say the family asked and you didn't mind doing it, you knew the guy back when and he was like this.

I usually got a nice thank-you note from the person for whom I wrote it, but I've never had any further interaction with the government body in question after writing my letter.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's not your job to deal with your uncertainty about what may have happened. If you had any relevant knowledge on that subject, you'd be (potentially) interviewed as a factual witness in the case. Assuming you go forward, stick to what you know and ignore what you don't. Other people will handle the issue of where he was and whether he did what he was accused of.
posted by zachlipton at 11:10 AM on May 20, 2014

Thanks everyone. Your responses have been very helpful.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:51 AM on May 20, 2014

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