Telling It Your Way – United States v. Figueroa-Coello

In United States v. Figueroa-Coello, a district court’s decision was overturned by the Fifth Circuit for failing to allow a criminal defendant a chance to present his side of the story during a sentencing hearing. Jose Santos Figueroa-Coello, an immigrant from Honduras and Mexico, was found guilty of illegal reentry into the United States. Mr. Coello was sentenced to 27 months. Although Mr. Coello’s attorney made a formal statement at the sentencing hearing, Mr. Coello was not afforded the same right. The Fifth Circuit found that Mr. Coello has the right to make a statement on his behalf at his sentencing hearing because counsel may not be able to provide “the same quantity or quality of mitigating evidence.” The Fifth Circuit believed that Mr. Coello’s statements were substantially different than his counsel’s statements and that they should be heard at his sentencing hearing.

Telling it your way is perhaps one of the most under-utilized tools in the criminal defense toolkit. For good reason, criminal defense attorneys generally protect their clients by presenting their story for them. This is especially true at trial where the defendant can invoke his or her fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. To be clear, we’re not advocating changing this practice. More often than not, it really is in the best interest of the defendant to not speak at trial. At sentencing hearings, however, it is important for the defendant to speak. In particular, it is important for the defendant to express remorse and to explain to the court why he or she should receive a lesser sentence. Sometimes, the emotion of the defendant telling it their way can change the sentence