Scharlette Holdman, a Force for the Defense on Death Row, Dies at 70

Scharlette Holdman in an undated photo.

In the tight-knit world of defense lawyers who focus on the death penalty, Scharlette Holdman, who died on July 12 at 70, was a revered figure, a non lawyer who taught her peers how to persuade jurors and prosecutors to spare the lives of men and women convicted of heinous crimes.

Her clients included Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber; and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Qaeda operative accused of orchestrating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In dozens of lesser-known cases, she immersed herself in the biographies of each defendant, examining family histories that went back several generations and unearthing painful memories of trauma and abuse as she helped their lawyers argue for life sentences.

Defense lawyers have long looked to gain sympathy for their clients in order to alleviate punishment, but Ms. Holdman was one of the first to go deeper, scraping for every medical, educational and legal record she could find and spending hours with a client to trace the path to the crime.

The methods she helped develop are now enshrined in the American Bar Association’s guidelines for death penalty defense lawyers. It is now common practice for these lawyers to hire a “mitigation specialist” — a term coined by Ms. Holdman — and in recent years the evidence these specialists have gathered has often persuaded district attorneys not to seek the death penalty.

In legal circles, the work of Ms. Holdman and those who have followed in her footsteps has been widely credited as an important factor in the decline of the death penalty nationwide, from more than 300 death sentences per year in the mid-1990s to 30 in 2016.

“Scharlette’s guiding hand, drive to understand the influences that shaped each individual’s life and pushing legal teams to gain a deep understanding of those influences contributed to the resolution of many cases,” said Judy Clarke, a criminal defense lawyer who worked with Ms. Holdman on several high-profile cases.

A friend and colleague, Denny LeBoeuf, said Ms. Holdman died of cancer in New Orleans, where she had been living.

She was born on Dec. 11, 1946, in Memphis, to Neil Holdman and the former Maggie Mae Wardlow. Her father was a landlord who described collecting rent and evicting poor black tenants as “going niggering,” the journalist David Von Drehle wrote in profiling Ms. Holdman for his book “Among the Lowest of the Dead: The Culture of Death Row” (1995).

Rebelling against the segregationists in her midst, Ms. Holdman joined drives to register black voters in the South in the 1960s. She also studied anthropology, obtaining an undergraduate degree at Memphis State University, a master’s degree at the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Ms. LeBoeuf said.

Ms. Holdman’s marriage to James Shotwell Lindzey Jr. ended in divorce in 1974. Her survivors include her children, Summer and James Lindzey; two sisters, Linda Ball and Brenda Holdman; and a granddaughter.

Ms. Holdman ran several chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, a period when the United States Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws, and state legislatures raced to rewrite them.

The court restored capital punishment in 1976, but in doing so, it ruled that those who sentenced people to death must be able to consider “compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind.”

As the number of death row prisoners grew, Ms. Holdman took a job to run the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice in Tallahassee, where she tried to find lawyers for convicts as their execution dates approached.

“She was like a medic performing triage at a train wreck,” Mr. Von Drehle wrote. “The first job was to determine who was closest to dying.”

Ms. Holdman was famous for cajoling lawyers into taking on death-row appeals. She worked around the clock for $600 a month while raising two children, surviving on fast-food fried chicken, coffee, cigarettes and jug wine, all the while gaining a nickname in the Florida press: “Mistress of Delay.”

In such grim circumstances, a macabre sense of humor flourished in Ms. Holdman. In 1981, on the anniversary of Florida’s first execution under the new laws, she sent Florida’s attorney general at the time, Jim Smith, a “deathday cake” with black candles.

She later worked at the California Appellate Project in San Francisco and at the Center for Capital Assistance in New Orleans, where she trained lawyers and investigators how to develop evidence that could be used to secure a life sentence.

“What she saw is that killers are not just born,” said George Kendall, a lawyer who represents death row inmates. “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.”

Many clients had suffered sexual abuse and other traumas, and trust was critical. “How do you get people to talk about the worst family secrets?” asked James Lohman, a lawyer who worked with her in Florida. He added: “None of that comes easily. She figured it out and then trained people how to do it.”

Many mitigation specialists who followed in her footsteps are journalists and social workers. “It’s the antithesis of being a lawyer; it’s all about human feeling and connection,” Mr. Lohman said.

In recent years, Ms. Holdman worked with the lawyer Judy Clarke on the cases of Jared Loughner, who pleaded guilty to the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson in which Gabrielle Giffords, then a congresswoman, was seriously wounded, and Eric Rudolph, who was responsible for the 1996 bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta that left one dead and more than 100 injured. Armed with Ms. Holdman’s voluminous research of both men’s lives, their defense teams worked with prosecutors to let them plead guilty in exchange for life sentences.

Ms. Holdman was famous for her devotion to her clients, and they often grew attached to her; after Mr. Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison for a series of bombings, he asked that she be given his Montana cabin. (The government did not let her keep it, according to The New Yorker.)

Her final client was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She studied Islam while preparing for his military trial, which has still not been scheduled. Ms. Holdman received a Muslim burial in Slidell, La.

She mostly forswore talking to the news media but made an exception for Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program “This American Life,” to discuss one case that had stuck with her.

As she recalled it, she had been trying to prove to a California court that a mentally ill man was not “competent” enough to be executed. Prosecutors had enlisted a psychiatrist, who said the man had beaten her at tic-tac-toe, thus proving his mental acuity.

Ms. Holdman remembered that as a child she had seen a chicken at a fair that could play tic-tac-toe, and she tried to get a similar chicken admitted in court. The judge, however, “felt that bringing the chicken into the courtroom to play tic-tac-toe would degrade the dignity of the court,” Ms. Holdman said.

The decision rankled her. “I thought that the dignity of the court was degraded by executing a mentally retarded, mentally ill person,” she said.

In the end, the man’s life was spared on appeal.

Culled from The New York Times

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