Should sentencing judges look defendants in the eye?

I have previously noted District Judge Richard Kopf’s blog, which often features incredibly candid observations about how a senior and relatively conservative district judge handles criminal sentencing. In a recent post about allocution (the part of sentencing where a defendant addresses the court), Kopf writes:

After more than 20 years, and a 1,000 plus allocutions, I have a dirty little secret to admit.

Sometimes, when the allocution is raw with begging and bargaining and terror and fear, I will take my glasses off as I look directly into the defendant’s eyes. When I do, the defendant’s facial features becomes fuzzy and obscured and indistinct even though I appear to be focused on the face. I know that doing so is cowardly. But when I reject the plea for mercy, it helps to get me through the long nights that follow. After all, it’s all about me.

I am sure that a lot of readers will find Kopf’s candor horrifying; but I suspect that a lot of readers will also find it incredibly useful.

Incidentally, the post also links to, and strongly recommends, this recent study of federal judges’ views on allocution. My favorite allocution opinion is probably U.S. v. Jarvi, written by then-Tenth-Circuit Judge Michael McConnell.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).

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Sasha Volokh · March 19, 2014