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Mitigation Specialists, On the Hunt for Signs of Humanity

It took a jury all of 16 minutes to recommend the death penalty for the rape and murder James Bernard Belcher committed in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1996. But, because only nine jurors voted for death under a Florida law later invalidated by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling, Belcher won the right to a resentencing. And, at that hearing, in 2022, his defense team was aided by a mitigation specialist, Sara Baldwin, whose work a Marshall Project reporter observed in the months leading up to a new sentence of life without parole. While a majority of the new jury still voted to execute Belcher, enough dissented that he automatically won a reprieve. “It was his personal decision to do what he did, but society has some responsibility for making him who he was,” one juror told the Marshall Project later. “Society helped to make this monster.”

Baldwin's months of investigation turned up a sad tale of family violence and prison-life traumas, all of which contributed to Belcher's long string of robberies leading to rapes and finally murder. Baldwin described the work of a mitigation specialist: “We look through a more merciful lens" in a role as a “witness who knows and understands, without condemning.” This work, she believes, can have a healing effect on the client, the people they hurt, and even society as a whole. “The horrible thing to see is the crime,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Please, please, look past that, there’s a person here, and there’s more to it than you think.’” Defense lawyers had long called mothers to the witness stand to plead for their children’s lives, but now they enlist social workers, anthropologists, journalists, ministers and psychologists to dig deeper into family stories. They hunt for the traumas, displacements and inheritances that might illuminate a client’s path to violence. Mitigation specialists collect thousands of pages of records from hospitals, schools, jails and courts, and interview dozens of people in each case. There are no shortcuts to sensitive revelations of family secrets: a crucial story of childhood sexual abuse or a severe brain injury might not appear until the fifth visit with an estranged cousin who happened to witness a key event decades before. “My job is to help people look at my client as a human being,” said Elizabeth Vartkessian, a leading mitigation specialist.


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