Maurice Chammah spends time with mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin as she investigates the case of James Bernard Belcher, a man on death row for the 1996 murder of Jennifer Embry. Many adults facing the death penalty have been shaped by childhood trauma, or violence they experienced or witnessed in prison as juveniles. Mitigation specialists like Baldwin work to uncover traumas and the personal and family histories of people facing the death penalty to help paint fuller portraits of them so jurors can consider them as human beings with pasts, rather than monsters.

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.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.