Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Those are the sounds of a protest. A protest that took place in February outside of the Florida State Prison in the tiny town of Raiford, Florida. About 60 people attended and took turns tolling these small bells. Some had come into town with their church congregations and many held signs reading "All life is precious", and they sang.
Protester singing: Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost--
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: They were there to protest and to bear witness to the execution of a man named Donald Dillbeck. Dillbeck had been sentenced to death for killing a woman named Faye Vann in 1990. It's a crime he committed after escaping prison while serving a life sentence for another murder he committed in 1979. On February 24th, Dillbeck became the seventh person executed in the US this year.
Unknown Woman: The sentence of the State of Florida versus Donald Dillbeck was carried out at 6:13 PM. The execution went as scheduled and took place without incident.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Those gathered hoped the state would impart mercy. One of the people protesting outside the state prison that evening.
Sara Baldwin: My name is Sara Baldwin and I'm a mitigation specialist practicing in the state of Florida. A mitigation specialist is a person who works on defense teams to show our client in the context of his life history rather than in the context of a particular crime.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Sara was not working on Donald Dillbeck's case, but Dillbeck's attorneys had done something similar. They argued that Dillbeck's actions had been affected by his experience of abuse as a child and a neurological condition stemming from being exposed to alcohol before birth. They believe that these factors in his life should justify giving him a less severe sentence, or what's known as a mitigation.
Sara Baldwin: What I'm doing is investigating his life history, and I'm doing it with a particular eye towards his biological history, social history, and his psychological history, collecting a lot of records and doing a lot of interviews and then assimilating all of the information to put together a comprehensive history of our client's life.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: A mitigation specialist asks, who was this person before they committed this terrible crime? How did they become the kind of person who would?
Sara Baldwin: The goal of our work is to evoke mercy in the fact finder, whether that would be jurors or a judge, or possibly a prosecutor, trying to get our fact finder to see our client in a context that humanizes them rather than criminalizes them.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll admit, I find it difficult to consider mercy for those who have committed brutal, irreversible crimes. In this sense, it feels like mercy is somehow robbing the survivors, the family, of some justice, but we also have to ask why should we believe that the death penalty is justice.
Maurice Chammah: The death penalty in the United States has this long, complicated history. My name is Maurice Chammah and I'm a staff writer at The Marshall Project.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Maurice has been shadowing Sara Baldwin for a number of years, chronicling her work as a mitigation specialist, and his recent piece for The Marshall Project is titled The Mercy Workers.
Maurice Chammah: The death penalty disappeared for a few years. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court decided to abolish it and really was focused on the fact that the laws were arbitrary and unfair in terms of who was getting the death penalty, but a few years later, in 1976, they brought it back and there was this key language in one of those decisions, juries must have the ability to look at the diverse frailties of humankind was the phrase. The idea, basically, that you couldn't just punish somebody with a death penalty for their crime, you also had to look at them as an individual.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: As a result of this moment in legal history, the profession of mitigation specialists began to emerge. For the rest of this conversation, we're going to be talking about people who've committed some pretty terrible crimes and their experiences of living in prison. This means there'll be some difficult topics ahead, just a bit of a warning for you.
Maurice Chammah: I think it's fair to say that we can credit them for helping to reduce the number of death sentences in the United States over the last 20 years, and you're now starting to see them tiptoe out of just the context of the death penalty into other types of cases that involve typically very severe sentences. For example, juveniles who are facing life without the possibility of parole.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sara, how did you get started in this work? What drew you into it?
Sara Baldwin: I didn't know anything about this field when I first got into it, so I fell into it by accident. I was at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and I had a supervisor who suggested that I do an internship at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which is a nonprofit law firm in Durham, North Carolina as a mitigation specialist. About halfway through my internship, they hired me to come on staff and I worked there for six years.
The first man I ever met on death row had been there for 12 years, and he believed that he should be executed and that he should not exhaust his appeals. That's what's called a volunteer. He was volunteering to be executed. He was my first client, and I worked with him for several months and he was executed 25 years ago in January of 1998. After that, I absolutely was committed to staying in the fight and have been just as committed every day for the last 25 years as I was on the day that Ricky was executed.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: What is it about Ricky's execution that so cemented you to doing this work?
Sara Baldwin: I was engaged on several levels, one being my faith. The reason I was asked to work on Ricky's case was simply because he was a Christian and nobody else in the office could relate to him or really understand where he was coming from. He was very committed to his Bible. He had read the Bible front and back 26 times when I met him. We connected on that level, but then, of course, I was compelled by the story of his life, was incredibly sad and all of my maternal instincts went to work.
Of course, I was a new social worker and wanted to do my best as a social worker, and so I just put myself into the work and was in a group of people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who also had committed themselves at a very high level. I just really fell in love with the work and I feel I was made to do this kind of work.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Maurice, how did you meet Sara and begin shadowing her for years?
Maurice Chammah: I've been reporting on the death penalty for about 10 years. I had learned about this profession while doing that work. I had seen many cases where mitigation specialists had done an investigation and the things that they had learned had saved someone from the death penalty. You were hearing about this kind of work in other public defender offices, word of it was starting to spread.
I had the idea about five years ago that this profession had been around for decades but very few reporters had ever really covered it because it's a very secretive profession. There's a lot of risk that what they uncover, mitigation specialists uncover, could be used against the clients. They're not typically talking to the press. Usually, it's all filtered through the defense lawyers, but I had gotten to know a few mitigation specialists through my reporting, including Sara, and I went to them and said, "Well, could we work out a way ethically for me to shadow your work in a case?"
With Sara, that involved first deciding upon a case. We found one of the men named James Bernard Belcher, and I was drawn to James Bernard Belcher in particular because Sara was beginning to find out that his family had this really epic history that involved moving from Florida up to New York. He'd spent time in Rikers Island. There were just a lot of little details where I didn't know the full story, but I found myself drawn to his case and we decided there was this ethical way for me to follow her in New York, in Florida as she went and did her interviews and collected her records.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sara, maybe this is a good time for you to help us learn a little bit more about Bernard Belcher and why was it that he initially faced the death penalty.
Sara Baldwin: He had committed a crime here in Jacksonville of raping and murdering a woman in her home, and a jury had found him guilty of that back in 2001 and then he had been sentenced to death in 2001, but several of his jurors had voted for life. A new law was passed here in Florida, actually, it was from the US Supreme Court, and it affected Florida. It was a Florida case called Hurst. The Hurst case meant that anybody who had not been sentenced to death by a unanimous jury, that is 12 voters had voted for death, needed to be resentenced because it was considered unconstitutional to sentence someone to death without a unanimous jury.
His case came back to be retried, and that's how I got involved in it. Bernard was born here in Jacksonville, Florida to a family who was very prominent in the Black community. Jacksonville was very racist and segregated back then. It was in-- I believe Bernard was born in 1959 or '60. He lived in New York for a short period of time, and then his parents divorced. He came back to Jacksonville and was raised by his grandparents for the first five or six years of his life. When it was time for him to go to school, he moved back to New York City where they were living in Brooklyn in a very poor housing project called Brownsville.
By then, his mother had remarried and so Bernard began living with them. It was a huge culture shock for him to move from Jacksonville to New York City, and he was largely unsupervised. There was a lot of questionable activity, I guess you'd say, in his home. His mother was working and so he was often unsupervised and left to his own devices there. Things didn't go well for him as time went by. He had difficulty adjusting, so did his sister Sharon, who had also grown up in Jacksonville. She moved back to Jacksonville and Bernard did not.
As time went by, he fell sway to the criminal elements in that area and the ones that were right in his own living room that his stepfather was involved in. He, I would say, became traumatized by the crimes that were surrounding him all day and night and also by the detachment from his grandparents. That's something we see a lot in these cases is there's a significant rupture of an attachment that was important in early childhood, and that certainly happened to Bernard.
He ended up in Rikers Island as a 16-year-old boy. He saw a social worker at that time who recommended that he be permitted to go to a group home and get some psychological treatment, but instead, the judge sentenced him to seven years in adult prison. He went into the adult prison system as a youth and stayed there until he was 21 years old. When he was released, there was no reentry program for him. There was no such thing as reentry programs in those days.
He was just on his own to deal with the, again, the culture shock of going from prison back into regular civilian life. He didn't adjust well. Although he had a terrific opportunity to go to college, he had flashbacks during lectures in the classroom. He had seen awful things in prison, rapes and killings, and could not focus on his schoolwork and just was unable to succeed. He ended up going back to prison multiple times. If you look over the course of his life, you just see an accelerating pattern of Bernard's criminal activity until finally the crime in this case occurred.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us. We're going to continue our exploration of the meaning of mercy. That's next on The Takeaway.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm still with journalist Maurice Chammah and Sara Baldwin, a mitigation specialist, or as Maurice calls her, a mercy worker. Sara works on behalf of people convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. It's her job to show the court why they deserve mercy. When a person's been living on death row, often for years, mercy typically means a new sentence of life without the possibility of parole. That can be a challenging transition that forces these folks to consider, "What am I now living for?"
Sara Baldwin: To be honest, it's terribly frightening for them. Many of my clients have been very isolated. In a case such as Mr. Belchers where he sat on death row for 20 years, that meant that he sat in a cell by himself for 20 years. The idea of leaving that small space and going back out into general population with a lot of other prisoners is daunting, and so they need a lot of support at the beginning.
Once they crossover that daunting challenge of crossing out of separation into being in a community again, even though it's a community of prisoners, then they have to learn how to move around in that community, and they have to learn and identify what it is their purpose can be in that community. For example, when I went and saw Mr. Belcher recently, he talked about the transition he was making, and that he is now able to say and mean it that he's glad that he got life and he's glad that he's back out in a bigger community where he can have an impact on younger inmates and where he can be more hopeful about life.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I consider myself a student of Dr. Maya Angelou, and among the many things that she taught us was that it was important to understand that anything that a human being is capable of, we are capable of. She would tell us there are no monsters, that human actions are always done by human beings, and that we might think of ourselves as a good human, but we are also capable of great evil.
We might think of ourselves as bad, but we're also capable of great good. At the same time, I got to say, even as you tell me Mr. Belcher's story, I can't help but to wonder about the woman he killed and about her family. Maurice, can you help me to understand a bit about how we think about this language of mercy at the same time that we're facing such a brutalizing, irreversible crime?
Maurice Chammah: Absolutely. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and part of my motivation for wanting to report the story and follow Sara and her work was it felt like there are just such strong opinions and beliefs in American society about crime. You have this tug of war between a more merciful way of looking at things and a more anger-based shock. Whenever we hear the story of any kind of horrific murder or rape or a mass shooting, our first impulse is always, "This is so awful. Who could do this? Only a monster could, and we have to punish them."
That is a natural response, I think, that a lot of us have, but for that, and for the fact that there's all this true crime content out there, I feel like we actually have a fairly paltry understanding of why it is that people actually commit these crimes. We're, in a way, aching for some kind of explanation because we frequently refer to a crime as senseless, and that just means that we can't make sense of it. It may mean that the tools of neuroscience or psychology have not gotten us to the point of understanding it. It's not that it's cosmically inexplicable.
I saw in Sara's work a reaching forward towards a world in which maybe we understand a little bit more. She, in her profession, are trying to start putting the pieces together in individual cases, not to fully explain why did Bernard Belcher murder Jennifer Embry, that may not be fully explicable, but at least giving us more of an understanding of what are the traumas in his life that shaped his path and led him from a baby like any other in segregated Jacksonville in the 1950s to someone who could commit a crime like this.
That was the tug of war in terms of how to think that I felt like I was witnessing, and it came to a head in Jacksonville, Florida last September, where having watched Sara in the field interview people, gather records, put together the story of Belcher's life, I sat in the back of the courtroom while, over the course of a couple of weeks, a jury heard a lot of this information. A lot of the people that Sara had found got up to testify about Belcher's life, and then the family member of the victim, Jennifer Embry, also got up to testify and they sat through all of it too in the front row.
It was almost like one-half of the courtroom was primarily family members of the victim and friends of the prosecutors and the other side was very much family members of Bernard Belcher, the few that came, and defense lawyers. I was not able to interview the family of Jennifer Embry. I just heard their testimony, which was brutal, devastating tale of losing this loved one to a murder that they could not make sense of. It was, in fact, a couple of years before police could even match some DNA to Belcher. They went a long time back in the 1990s not knowing who did it.
I came away from that trial really feeling like there was nothing in this trial that was going to bring this family healing beyond the promise of the more harsh option in terms of punishment. Then it was set up as a competition where if Belcher didn't get the death penalty, it was somehow the victim's family had lost. That felt to me like a really psychologically unhealthy way to treat a victim's family, in a way, as part of team prosecutor. The prosecutor's fighting for them and if the prosecutor loses, then they'll lose, and in the end, they're left with their loved one is still dead.
They've now sat through two different trials, one in 2001, and then now it's been reversed, one in 2022 following Sara's work. Now Bernard Belcher is in prison, and there's an end to the story for them in the sense that his new sentence is basically locked in, that he doesn't have the death penalty anymore. It struck me that if we were trying to design a system that would do right by victim's family members, it wouldn't be entirely about a competition for the harshest punishment. There was really no opportunity in this system for offering them healing in any meaningful way beyond punishment.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sara says her deep Christian faith is at the core of what drives her to do this work for over 25 years.
Sara Baldwin: I would like to quote a scripture that's probably the most often quoted scripture by Christians, and then I want to follow it up with the verse that comes right after it. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him."
I looked up some of those words to see what they meant in the original Aramaic. The word condemn means to judge and in these cases, the jury is being asked to condemn an individual, not just to condemn the act. We can all stand together and condemn violence, but jurors in capital cases are being asked to condemn a person. I don't stand with that. The word saved in this passage means to heal and restore. That's one of the definitions of that word, save. I see mitigation work as being very restorative. It is a type of restorative justice. It invites us to find ways to reconcile with one another rather than to condemn one another. That one thing has informed my work more than any other concept.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Maurice, what would a more just, a more merciful system look like?
Maurice Chammah: I know that Sara has had experiences that have gestured towards what that could look like. I'm thinking in particular about moments when people who have committed these crimes have, for example, been able to interact with the family members of the victims in a very controlled way and learn more about why the crime happened and express what they need to express in a more direct way.
I have seen situations where a state institution or someone else brings people together and tries to offer them the ability to talk to one another in a way that can lead towards more healing. I also think that framing it as a competition with two sides fighting each other, that is the way that we've set up the American justice system for getting at truth questions like guilt or innocence. We have to imagine something very different for questions of punishment and severity and rehabilitation that aren't really factual questions. They're not, "Did he do the crime or not?" They're, "What does he deserve?" Which is a much more nebulous and imposive, really, ultimately subjective question.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sara, what about us as a society? How do we change? Can we change when we are more merciful?
Sara Baldwin: Yes, I believe very firmly that we can. My faith tells me that I am an ambassador of reconciliation. I truly believe that mitigation work at its core is healing not only for our clients but for the survivors of the crimes and for the communities where the crimes happen whenever we extend mercy. That word mercy also has many meanings, one of which is to show loving-kindness. When we show loving-kindness to another person, it has transformative value. Not only is the individual to whom we are being kind transformed but we are transformed and the atmosphere that we walk in is transformed. We develop an atmosphere around ourselves of light and hope.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sara Baldwin is a mitigation specialist based in Florida, and Maurice Chammah is a staff writer at The Marshall Project and author of the recent piece, The Mercy Workers. Maurice, Sara, thank you so much.
Maurice Chammah: Thanks for having us.
Sara Baldwin: Thank you.
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