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From OJ Simpson to Danny Masterson: the celebrity support letter has long been a fixture of American justice

In all likelihood, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote letters in support of Danny Masterson thinking few besides the judge in Masterson’s rape trial would read them. But after Masterson was sentenced on 7 September to 30 years to life for the rapes of two women, the letters were unsealed and posted online for wider review.

Kunis writes that upon first meeting Masterson as a teenager, “I could sense his innate goodness and genuine nature.” Kutcher, in his letter, notes his inability to recall an instance of Masterson lying to him in the 25 years they’ve known each other. “I do not believe he is an ongoing harm to society and having his daughter raised without a present father would [be] a tertiary injustice in and of itself,” Kutcher writes. Both call him a “role model”.

Unfortunately for the TV sweethearts turned real-life married couple, those lines did not elicit a warm, That ’70s Show-style audience reaction. Chrissie Carnell Bixler – one of five Masterson accusers who allege the Church of Scientology stopped them from reporting the former actor, a prominent church member, to Los Angeles police – criticized Kunis and Kutcher for their willful ignorance. “You’re just as sick as your mentor,” Bixler, also a That ’70s Show alum, said of Kutcher in an Instagram story. “Dear Mila, I pray you begin to process what you experienced as a child on set.” The couple’s attempt at a have-your-cake-and-eat-it apology video, in which they pledge support to victims, represents some of their worst scene work.

Related: Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis sorry for ‘pain’ caused by letters on behalf of Danny Masterson

Kutcher and Kunis’s written arguments for Masterson have raised important questions about the ethics of celebrities rushing to the defense of industry peers accused of rape and other heinous crimes – and it’s an especially bad look for Kutcher, who co-founded a non-profit to combat child sexual exploitation and also has a history of making inappropriate comments about underaged actors, including Kunis when she was a minor. But fairly or unfairly, the character support letter has been a fixture of the American justice system since time immemorial – a final opportunity for supporters of the accused to make a direct plea for merciful punishment.

“For Masterson and other individuals facing decades and decades behind bars, the idea is to build context about a person’s life,” says Jason Goldman, a New York-based criminal defense attorney. A negative experience in childhood, for example, could well be the antecedent for a particular crime. “It’s not an excuse,” Goldman adds. “It’s a way to provide a reason as to why this person deserves less time – 20 years instead of 30.”

Judges review support letters all the time as part of their sentencing deliberation. It’s only when celebrities are on trial that the writing is held up for scrutiny. When the actor Paul Reubens was charged in 1991 with exposing himself at an adult movie theater, his publicist said he was swamped with calls from the parents of Pee-wee Herman fans who were desperate to write letters of support. Within weeks of OJ Simpson being accused of murdering his ex-wife and her acquaintance, the Los Angeles county superior court was reportedly inundated with 350,000 letters vouching for him.

As the #MeToo movement was closing in on Harvey Weinstein, a trove of unsealed documents show the disgraced movie mogul making desperate appeals to Tim Cook, Quentin Tarantino and other powerful people for support letters arguing for him to remain in charge of his formidable production company – letters that almost surely would have been repurposed for Weinstein’s legal defense, had anyone bothered to write him back. “There are many false allegations and over time, we’ll prove it,” Weinstein wrote in an email to Jeff Bezos. “But right now, I’m the poster boy for bad behavior.”

Last month, Iggy Azalea was denounced for the three-page letter she wrote in support of the musician Tory Lanez to David Herriford, the Los Angeles superior court judge deciding his sentence for shooting Megan Thee Stallion. In her letter, Azalea describes Lanez as a “gardener” who “helps others bloom” – flowery language that’s a little too on the nose even for this florid emcee.

“He’s always been incredibly respectful of me and I refuse to believe that he would do anything in malice especially to a woman,” Azalea wrote, leaving out two prior assault allegations against Lanez. This was after the Aussie rapper spent several paragraphs running through her album sales (“over 65 million”), chart history (“broken records previously held by the Beatles”), trophy count (“6 Grammys and … a multitude of other musical awards”) and associated acts (“from Beyonce to Pitbull … from Britney to Jenifer Lopez [sic]”). “In short,” Azalea writes, “like yourself, I’m great at what I do and I’m well respected by my peers.” Kutcher and Kunis are similarly boastful in their letters.

Iggy Azalea on red carpet
Iggy Azalea in 2018. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Eric Bland, a South Carolina attorney representing victims of the financial fraud perpetrated by the legal scion turned convicted double murderer Alex Murdaugh, says celebrity supporters often fall into the trap of leading with their résumés. He calls it counterproductive. “What judges are looking for more are the ordinary people in someone’s extraordinary life,” he says. “Otherwise the letters are just based on limited exposure to that person. If you’re going to write a letter like that, you disclaim it by saying: ‘Look, I haven’t seen him in 12 years. … I only know of this person in this particular context.’”

In Bland’s considerable experience, judges view celebrities as lightweights – but that’s not to say the letters written in their name can’t carry serious heft. What’s more, not all celebrities write support letters to protect their powerful friends or win over the court of public opinion.

In 2021, Carlos Macci, 71, was one of four men charged with selling the fentanyl-laced heroin that killed the actor Michael K Williams. Before Macci’s sentencing in New York, The Wire co-creator David Simon spoke on behalf of Williams’s friends, family and fans who say the actor – who played a Robin Hood-like drug dealer on The Wire and was candid off-camera about his struggles with addiction – never would have wanted Macci to rot in jail.

“Beyond even The Wire and its arguments, Michael’s commitment to challenging our nation’s rates of incarceration and our reliance on the drug prohibition continued with his documentary work and with his engagement with ex-felons and restorative justice groups,” wrote Simon, a Baltimore police reporter before he was a prestige TV guru. “Michael would look at Mr Macci and hope against hope that this moment in which he finds himself might prove redemptive, that his remaining years might amount to something more, and that by the grace of love and leniency, something humane and worthy might be rescued from this tragedy.” Ultimately, Macci received a 30-month prison sentence, plus three years of supervised release.

Celebrity support letters may range from offensive to misguided, but they fit snugly within an industry where favor-trading and long memories are coins of the realm. For an average person without powerful friends, support letters are even more prized. In a criminal justice system where guilty narratives are easily crafted, the letters are a key cog in the system – one that helps balance the scale in its own small way. “We have very, very long punitive sentences in America,” Goldman says. “These letters aren’t saying, ‘Let him out tomorrow.’ They’re saying, ‘Here’s one piece in the fuller picture.’”