Pioneers in Efforts to Defend Death-Penalty Cases, End Capital Punishment Remembered in New Book, Obituary

The legacies of Scharlette Holdman (pictured) and Marie Deans—two women who changed the landscape of capital punishment in the United States—are memorialized in a recent story in the Marshall Project and a new book scheduled for release in August. Maurice Chammah's article, We Saw Monsters. She Saw Humans, marks the July 12, 2017 passing of mitigation pioneer Scharlette Holdman and tells the story of her forty-year fight on behalf of capital defendants and death-row prisoners. The forthcoming book by Todd Peppers and Margaret Anderson, A Courageous Fool, tells the story of a similarly pioneering woman, Marie Deans, who long worked to save defendants and prisoners facing the death penalty and whose efforts to give voice to family members, like herself, whose relatives had been murdered, led to the creation of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Holdman used her background in anthropology to develop the practice of death-penalty mitigation—conducting a multi-generational social history investigation to tell the story of a client's life in a way that would humanize him or her to a jury or a judge. “What she saw is that killers are not just born,” said lawyer George Kendall, who represents death-row prisoners. “They have had unbelievably abused and neglectful lives, and that history is relevant. You become your client’s biographer, you speak to the 60 most important people in that person’s life—friend and foe.” She approached this difficult work with creativity and humor. In one case, she attempted to discredit a psychiatrist's testimony that a severely impaired defendant was competent to be executed because he had beaten the doctor at tic-tac-toe, by locating a tic-tac-toe playing chicken to present in court. The judge “felt that bringing the chicken into the courtroom to play tic-tac-toe would degrade the dignity of the court,” Holdman later told This American Life. “I thought that the dignity of the court was degraded by executing a mentally retarded, mentally ill person.” In 2011, she described mitigation investigations, saying, “As we in local communities began to look for mitigation, we saw it as presenting the narrative of someone’s life, and we became acutely aware that it was a very specialized, complex undertaking. That narrative is not there for the asking. It requires not just knowledge and skill but experience in how you search for, identify, locate, recognize, and preserve the information.” Her work was profiled in the book Among the Lowest of the Dead, an account of Florida's reinstatement of the death penalty. A Courageous Fool describes the work of mitigation expert and anti-death penalty activist Marie Deans to defend death-sentenced prisoners, to free the wrongfully convicted—including Virginia death-row exoneree Earl Washington—and to try to end the death penalty. Virginia Senator Mark Warner called A Courageous Fool, "A powerful story of a Virginia heroine." Deans passed away in 2011. 

(M. Chammah, "We Saw Monsters. She Saw Humans.," The Marshall Project, July 13, 2017; Press Release, "Scharlette Holdman, Pioneer in Defense of Death Penalty Cases, Dies," Death Penalty Information Center, July 13, 2017; J. Toobin, "The Mitigator," The New Yorker, May 9, 2011; T. Peppers and M. Anderson, "A Courageous Fool: Marie Deans and Her Struggle against the Death Penalty," Vanderbilt University Press, August 8, 2017.) See Books and History of the Death Penalty.