Scharlette Holdman

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Scharlette Holdman, who died last week, was renowned in the criminal justice world as one of the foremost death penalty mitigation specialists in the country. “What she saw is that killers are not just born. They have had unbelievably abused and neglectful lives, and that history is relevant,” death penalty lawyer George Kendall told the Marshall Project.

Much like Marie Deans, another well-known mitigation specialist (we interviewed her biographer, Todd Peppers, in our most recent Focus ), Holdman began working for capital defendants before “mitigation specialist” was a profession. She “was one of the handful of dedicated people who, 40 years ago, saw what needed to be done to save clients’ lives and simply began to do it,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham said.

Holdman, who had earned a PhD. in anthropology, had served as the state director of the ACLU in Hawaii, Louisiana, and Florida. It was while working as the director of a nonprofit organization in Florida that advocated for prisoners’ rights  that she saw the need for someone to talk to these defendants about their lives, their experiences, what had led them to death row. And, seeing the need, she filled it.

Many of Holdman’s clients were well-known, including Jared Loughner, Ted Kaczynski, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Says Dunham, “Scharlette was the perfect person to develop the concept of the multi-generational family history investigation that is at the core of any good mitigation case. That investigation is really a form of social anthropology, and she understood that presenting a case for life was about storytelling that humanized the person the prosecution was attempting to portray as a monster.”

Holdman, who had been living and working in New Orleans up until her death, was 70 years old.

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