How Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s Danny Masterson letters missed the point

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Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis want to clarify a few things.

Over the weekend, the celebrity couple issued a video concerning letters they wrote to a judge vouching for their friend and former That ’70s Show co-star Danny Masterson’s character. In May 2023, Masterson was convicted for plying two women with drugs and raping them in the early aughts. In their character letters, Kunis and Kutcher describe Masterson as an older brother figure, a father, and a staunchly anti-drug presence who has only been a positive influence in their lives.

“The letters were not written to question the legitimacy of the judicial system or the validity of the jury’s ruling,” Kunis and Kutcher said in their Instagram video. “We support victims. We have done this historically through our work and will continue to do so in the future.”

The couple, who met on the set of the late ’90s Fox hit and have been married since 2015, has been dragged for displaying a lack of moral center in the lackluster video. They’ve each had something of a front-row seat to the Masterson ordeal — first as costars on That ’70s Show when the rapes took place between 2001 and 2003, and later, when Kutcher reunited with Masterson on Netflix’s The Ranch in 2016. In late 2017, Masterson was fired from that show as a result of these allegations.

Critics say the video, in which they stress their awareness of the “pain caused” by the letters, failed to atone for what Kutcher and Kunis wrote in their Masterson letters.

Chrissie Carnell Bixler, one of Masterson’s victims, denounced the letters in an Instagram Story, stating “in my opinion you’re [Kutcher] just as sick as your ‘mentor.’” Actress Christina Ricci seemed to reference Kutcher and Kunis’s character portraits in an Instagram Story, writing: “So sometimes people we have loved and admired do horrible things. They might not do these things to us and we only know who they were to us but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do the horrible things and to discredit the abused is a crime.”

Kunis and Kutcher’s tone-deaf letters have created a common refrain: Wouldn’t it be easier not to defend a rapist?

But that response misunderstands the purpose of character letters or letters of support for convicted people. Theoretically, these letters — which are commonplace in criminal cases — aren’t about a person’s innocence or last-ditch defense, but a plea for mercy and for the judge to see a fuller portrait of a person and their potential for rehabilitation. For those marginalized by society and facing a crushing criminal justice system, a character letter can act as a small and necessary check on the justice system.

I spoke with Colleen McCormack-Maitland, the deputy director of legal services at the Legal Action Center (LAC), about how these letters work. McCormack-Maitland and the LAC work to fight discrimination within the criminal justice system and advocate on behalf of those with arrest and conviction records, substance use disorders, and HIV or AIDS.

McCormack-Maitland highlighted how the pushback against Kutcher and Kunis’s testimonials (which she mentions are “counterproductive”) may be obscuring the actual intention and importance of these kinds of testimonials.

Colleen, explain character letters to me.

So my first job out of law school, I was a public defender for seven years. I’m really familiar with these types of letters, which I think at that time, I would have called them “a letter of support.” The point of these letters is to help the sentencing judge understand who the person is, beyond what they might have read in an indictment or heard in testimony at trial.

It’s important to understand that conviction and sentencing are two completely separate parts of the legal process. These letters come after conviction.

Right. At this point, Danny Masterson has been found guilty. He went to trial, a jury trial. In a jury trial, the judge doesn’t have a part in deciding someone’s guilt or innocence. After a person has been found guilty, [judges] decide the legal sentencing options. For each type of crime, there’s a set range and judges are allowed to consider what will be imposed within that range. Sometimes ranges can be huge.

The judge will, at this point, potentially have heard a lot of really terrible things about the person who was convicted of a crime. But they may never have heard anything from the person themselves because people aren’t required to testify in their own defense, and most people don’t.

And that’s where these letters come in, right? Like we’re jumping into the Masterson case with the judge determining how long Danny Masterson is going to be in prison. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis said they were asked by the Masterson family to give the judge a personal account. It’s not about whether Masterson is guilty of rape, it’s about telling the judge who they think Masterson is.

Exactly. It can be really hard when writing these types of letters for people. People are put in a difficult position when they believe the [person they’re writing these letters for] is not guilty and that person has been found guilty.

I think the most effective letters are ones that express remorse, ones that on some level take responsibility but then talk about why the judge should show some mercy to this person.

So yeah, about Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s letters …

I don’t think that their letters were effective — I don’t know that I would have submitted these letters, and I think they are potentially counterproductive.

There were parts in the letters that talk about the impact that this would have on Danny Masterson, his child, and that is really important to tell the judge — that this has the potential to have a huge negative impact on his child’s life. I think that’s something that I would encourage someone to put in there. But these letters had parts that were just really out of touch.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.

Most people convicted of a crime do not get character testimony from celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Like, “We’re famous, we think he’s a good guy.” There was some really weird stuff in there about villainizing drug users, and saying, like, Masterson is somehow a good guy because he thinks drug use is bad. It made it seem like somehow drug use is worse than rape.

There may be a story to be told [about what kind of person Masteron is], I don’t know. But they didn’t tell one.

Well, it’s doubly weird because Masterson was convicted of using drugs and alcohol to ply his victims.

They were putting him on a pedestal because they say he’s anti-drug. It was really exceptionalizing. They were saying, “Don’t treat him like other people who are in the criminal legal system like these drug users.” And again, I think that that was not good messaging.

When people write these things, do they expect them to necessarily go public? Or is it mostly like a private thing?

They are 100 percent part of a public record. This happened recently with Iggy Azalea and Tory Lanez. [She was] saying, “We had no idea these were going to go public.”

Ah, yes, Azalea said she wrote hers thinking only the judge would see it.

To me, that seems to be a failure by either their attorney or the attorney for the accused person to explain the fact that these are going to be in the public record. The thing is that in 99 percent of cases, they’re never going to go public because they are everyday cases that are only really important to the parties involved.

There are egregious things, egregious harms, happening all the time. We never know about them, they’re happening in a system that is just not that transparent. But they are a matter of public record, you just have to request them.

I think an attorney in a [celebrity] case would know that there was a possibility that these would go public and that these would be picked up by the press. But in an ordinary everyday case, it’s just not an issue.

The common refrain that we’re seeing is that Kutcher and Kunis shouldn’t have written those letters. And to me, that reaction is a little frightening.

I mean, we should never be making broad-based policy or generalizations based on the cases of famous celebrities. They’re absolutely the outliers. Letters of support are actually really, really important.

We have this incredibly draconian criminal punishment system that tears families apart, destroys people’s lives. Prison is a really terrible place where people can be literally tortured. People are raped in prison, people are beaten in prison, people are deprived from seeing their loved ones in prison.

It’s really important, when a judge is making a decision about how much prison time somebody is going to do, that they don’t just hear from the prosecutor, and that they don’t just hear from the people who accused them, it’s really important that they hear from the person’s loved ones so that they’re not just making a decision based on the conviction itself.

I feel like these letters must matter a lot to marginalized people. Like people who may not have a network, who aren’t Hollywood stars, who may need someone to vouch for them.

Something like these letters may give somebody even the smallest bit of a chance. These letters can follow people, and might be referred to later when they’re up for parole. These letters might play a role in someone’s appeal later on. So you’re making an important record of something for the judge to make their decision. Keep in mind that the criminal legal system is stacked against people who are accused of crimes. In that criminal legal system, it’s a lot of Black and brown poor people, not white celebrities.

And part of these letters is to bridge the potential gap between the person and a judge who may be of a different race, a different culture, different class, different educational attainment level — to help them to see the whole person.

As you mentioned, there are factors to consider — if someone grew up in an abusive household or if they were a victim of addiction, if they grew up in poverty, if they’re mentally ill — that judges might not hear in a case. It’s not a matter of guilt or innocence to show the circumstances that a person faces.

It’s that Bryan Stevenson quote, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

It’s really important to tell someone’s story — if they were poor or abused, absolutely yes — but these letters are to show that they’re more than just the bad thing that they did.

It’s to show the judge that you can take a chance on this person and not give them life in prison, you could give them a lesser sentence with a hope of rehabilitation or some hope at the end of it that maybe they can get out of prison.

I want to talk about that idea. Prison is a punishment but theoretically also a means of rehabilitation. After prison, the hope is that people come back to society. I know this is not a normal case, but the reaction feels very black and white for a thing that should be more gray.

The fact is, a lot of people aren’t getting very much rehabilitation in prison. You know, it would be great if we had something that was rehabilitative, but prison is punishment in our society, and, you know, retributive.

Bleak.

That’s the reality! You’re right, in the sense that, in theory, most people are going to come home at some point. But just giving someone the maximum prison sentence doesn’t actually solve the problem of rape.

Angela Davis has a theory about this. We’re banishing this person for a period of time to a place where we don’t have to think about them anymore. That doesn’t address the root causes of what’s going on.

But within that, the judge has a range of things they can do. They could have sent them away for less. And the idea, like you said, is that the judge should have this information in making that decision. Like what’s this person’s capacity for change and growth? I think a really effective letter would have shown a person’s path of change and growth in the past 20 years. Unfortunately for Masterson, it may be that there was no path of growth in the last 20 years.

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