Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Monday, April 3, 2023

The Mercy Workers

Melanie Garcia
The Marshall Project
Originally published 2 March 2023

Here are two excerpts:

Like her more famous anti-death penalty peers, such as Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, Baldwin argues the idea that people should be judged on more than their worst actions. But she also speaks in more spiritual terms about the value of unearthing her clients’ lives. “We look through a more merciful lens,” she told me, describing her role as that of 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.’”

The United States has inherited competing impulses: It’s “an eye for an eye,” but also “blessed are the merciful.” Some Americans believe that our criminal justice system — rife with excessively long sentences, appalling prison conditions and racial disparities — fails to make us safer. And yet, tell the story of a violent crime and a punishment that sounds insufficient, and you’re guaranteed to get eyerolls.

In the midst of that impasse, I’ve come to see mitigation specialists like Baldwin as ambassadors from a future where we think more richly about violence. For the last few decades, they have documented the traumas, policy failures, family dynamics and individual choices that shape the lives of people who kill. Leaders in the field say it’s impossible to accurately count mitigation specialists — there is no formal license — but there may be fewer than 1,000. They’ve actively avoided media attention, and yet the stories they uncover occasionally emerge in Hollywood scripts and Supreme Court opinions. Over three decades, mitigation specialists have helped drive down death sentences from more than 300 annually in the mid-1990s to fewer than 30 in recent years.


The term “mitigation specialist” is often credited to Scharlette Holdman, a brash Southern human rights activist famous for her personal devotion to her clients. The so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, tried to deed his cabin to her. (The federal government stopped him.) Her last client was accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammad. While working his case, Holdman converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. She died in 2017 and had a Muslim burial.

Holdman began a crusade to stop executions in Florida in the 1970s, during a unique moment of American ambivalence towards the punishment. After two centuries of hangings, firing squads and electrocutions, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. The court found that there was no logic guiding which prisoners were executed and which were spared.

The justices eventually let executions resume, but declared, in the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina, that jurors must be able to look at prisoners as individuals and consider “compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind.”