When defendants hear that ‘guilty’ verdict, most think it’s all over. But for some defense lawyers, there’s one more tactic they can use at their disposal: leniency. After you’ve been convicted of a crime, you hope that whoever is determining your sentence is going to take mercy on your [legally] guilty soul. More often than not, that’s the judge.
There are a couple of ways defense attorneys can get a judge to grant leniency to their client. A charitable past always helps, testimony from supportive friends and family might have a positive effect. But some lawyers have thought of another, more visual way to appeal to the judge’s sense of empathy.
They’re called, “sentence mitigation videos.”
How does this work? Let’s use an example. Meet Mario Delgado.
Sure is a sympathetic guy, eh?
If you were the judge (imagine you’ve got years of legal knowledge at your disposal) and you were about to decide Mr. Delgado’s sentencing. Would you send him back to Mexico? Or would you allow him the chance to work for the American Dream like many of us do?
A nonviolent crime for which he pleads guilty and a plea from a man to spend time working to raise his family the best he knows how? Seems like a pretty easy choice for me. This is a guy neighbors would feel comfortable living next to. This is not a threat to society.
Let’s try someone a little less sympathetic, shall we?
79-year-old Richard Hendryx was charged with the federal crime of Traveling with Intent to Commit Sexual Abuse of Minors. His defense was that he got caught up in an undercover operation to catch child abusers by luring him into a trap.
The video you just watched was intended to present a humanizing picture of Mr. Hendryx as a grief-stricken, mentally distressed old man who was entrapped by police and wrongfully convicted. But he was convicted, and so the video’s intent is to grant leniency. So, if you were the judge, what would you do?
The prosecution, in this case, sought 11 years imprisonment. The judge, after viewing this video, sentenced Mr. Hendryx to just two.
These videos are a part of an increasing trend in criminal justice: to put a sympathetic face on the legally guilty. If punishment is inevitable, you might as well try to get off as easy as you can, right?
Sentencing mitigation videos are not just a flavor of the week, there’s actually a “film festival” dedicated to them called the Sentencing and Post Conviction Film Festival, hosted by lawyer Doug Passon, who films plenty of these videos himself.
His goal, in his words, “make judges suffer.”
If you can tear at the heartstrings of a judge, you can earn yourself leniency. You can do this, Passon argues, with an emotional visual aid such as a “sentencing mitigation video” such as what you’ve just viewed earlier.
And it’s true, if you can see the human rather than the stat, you’re more likely to grant leniency. Our prisons are overcrowded as it is, why cram it any more with a decent human like the one you’ve just viewed in a three-minute video?
One detail people might neglect to notice is that anyone can be humanized. Give someone, like Mr. Passon, a proper budget and you can be as human as human gets. But what these videos fail to show is someone accepting responsibility for their actions and the consequences that come from those actions.
But for now, the hot new ‘get out of jail free’ card is a nice, well-funded emotional video.