Scharlette Holdman, a revered figure in the capital defense world, passed away this July at her home in New Orleans. She was seventy years old. Ms. Holdman, although not a lawyer, was integral to shaping best practices in representing capital defendants and developing the concept of mitigating evidence. She worked with some of the most infamous prisoners in American history, including Ted Kaczynski, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Ms. Holdman was known for the extraordinary compassion and care she demonstrated for her capital clients and for her meticulous work to identify the mitigating factors in their lives that could help explain their crimes and demonstrate their humanity. In every case, she examined medical, educational, and legal records and spent considerable time researching generations of family history and highlighting experiences of poverty, trauma, and abuse. Ms. Holdman spent countless hours with clients to understand and trace their paths to crime. The methods that she helped develop are enshrined in the ABA’s Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases.
“Mitigation specialists,” a term coined by Ms. Holdman, are now considered core members of any capital defense team. Their work collecting background evidence on capital defendants has increasingly persuaded prosecutors and jurors to turn away from the death penalty. In fact, Ms. Holdman and her work are credited as a driving factor in the decline of the death penalty nationwide.
Ms. Holdman was born and raised in Memphis in the 1940s in an environment of racial hatred and bigotry that inspired her to fight the injustices she witnessed. In the 1970s, Ms. Holdman ran several chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union during the period when the Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws and states raced to rewrite them. Ms. Holdman later took a job running the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice in Tallahassee, where she tried to find lawyers for death-sentenced prisoners as their execution dates approached.
In many respects, her work in Florida was a precursor to the work the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project does today. She also worked at the California Appellate Project in San Francisco and 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. Her impact on capital defense continues to reverberate across the country, and her legacy will continue on through the practice of mitigation-focused capital defense that she founded and the countless lives it has saved.