Documentary films on defendants about to be sentenced have caught on in some federal public defenders’ offices, says the Wall Street Journal. Now, some private lawyers and investigators are attempting to unlock the potential of video in the sentencing phase of criminal cases, supplementing the memorandum and letters of support that are typically used to plead for leniency. “The sentences are almost always better than they would otherwise be,” said Doug Passon, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona who is considered by his peers to be a pioneer of so-called sentencing-mitigation videos. For the past five years, he has held a sentencing film festival at an annual training conference for federal public defenders.
Federal Judge William Sessions of Vermont said, “When you have a video of either a defendant’s life or a victim’s life, it provides context for that life.” He said videos weren’t a substitute for a good legal argument in a sentencing memorandum. “They are supplementary,” he said. Tristram Coffin, the U.S. attorney in Vermont, said he believed the videos are of limited use to judges, offering only an “edited version of the defendant’s life.” Prosecutors and victims have less of an ability to offer a counternarrative in video form, he said. In the case of a convicted drug dealer, for instance, “it’s hard to represent the tremendous damage his illegal activities caused to many communities and individuals,” Coffin said. Some courts have rejected sentencing videos after prosecutors protested they weren’t given an opportunity to question the witnesses who appeared in the videos.