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Illustration: A Black man in a prison uniform sits across from a bespectacled White woman in a small, dark room. In the background are strewn documents and photographs.
Feature

The Mercy Workers, Illustrated

Her mission was to save him from death row — by telling the story of his life.

The silhouettes of James Bernard Belcher, sitting in a chair on the left, and Sara Baldwin, sitting on the right, as seen through the window of a door inside prison. In 2019, Baldwin told me, Maurice Chammah at The Marshall Project, that she’d joined Belcher’s defense team. He was facing the death penalty in Florida.
Baldwin’s hand, holding a pen, is writing on a yellow notepad. Her job as a “mitigation specialist” was to find reasons why a jury should spare his life — by researching the story of that life.
Jennifer Embry’s 1996 murder was solved when DNA at the scene matched Belcher’s. He had already gone to prison for sexually assaulting another woman. A jury took just 16 minutes to vote for his execution. A scene of a “Reward” poster on a utility pole features Embry’s face. Buildings stand in the background.
A judge’s gavel sits on a table, with the jurors’ box in the background. Changes in the law led Florida courts to overturn dozens of death sentences, and now a new jury would decide his fate. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court said juries had to assess peoples’ individual histories when considering the death penalty.
A black box appears, with the words: “Mitigation specialists emerged to research their lives, and played a big role in the drop from 300 annual death sentences in the mid-1990s, to fewer than 30 in recent years.”
Baldwin, wearing a puffy white winter coat, is pictured climbing a set of stairs, the railings in the foreground, while Chammah, wearing a blue coat, follows behind her. Chammah says: “As a journalist, I wanted to see this process in action, and asked to tag along. Baldwin and I spent long days driving around New York and Florida, looking for people from Belcher’s past.”
Baldwin is pictured in a white puffer jacket, talking into a cell phone and holding a notebook. Someone on the phone says, “I don’t want my name out there.” Many wanted nothing to do with her.
A scene of Baldwin and Chammah outside of a building, as Baldwin rings a bell for a resident.
Baldwin stands outside a small home, knocking on the door, while one step down behind her, Chammah stands observing.
Various scenes of the two visiting other houses. Various scenes of the two visiting other houses.
Then we found his parents. James Belcher Sr. is pictured sitting in a wheelchair across from Baldwin and is wearing glasses. He says, “New York changed her… She was going out on me.” Belcher, living in a nursing home, said he followed his wife to New York City in the 1950s to escape racism in Jacksonville, Florida. They were part of the Great Migration, an exodus of Black Americans from the South. Belcher says, “The knife was her favorite thing… She almost killed me.” A set of hands clutch a knife wound in the abdomen, with blood on the fingers.
A hand is pictured holding a knife with a red handle. At a Jacksonville apartment, Earline Floyd told a different story — but no less violent. A Black woman sitting on a green-colored couch and wearing a cap and a blue shirt, Floyd says, “Every time he raised his hand to hit me, I would cut him… I used to carry my razor with me every day, everywhere I went…” Baldwin, sitting across from Floyd, asks, “So he was a stalker type?” Floyd replies: “Yes.” We all wondered how the trauma shaped her son’s young brain.
After his parents’ divorce, she raised her son in Brooklyn, amid rampant violence: In 11th grade, he saw a security officer shoot his friend, and spent the rest of the day with the blood on his pants. A teenage Belcher is pictured at a school desk with blood on his pants.
Belcher is pictured shooting a jump shot. Belcher’s escape was basketball. A cousin told us he could land 100 jump shots in a row.
To buy new clothes, Belcher turned to stealing at 16. A young Belcher is depicted taking money from a wallet, a discarded purse and items inside of it strewn about the floor.
A young Belcher stands next to another incarcerated person, as they watch a prisoner attack another. Belcher was sent to a jail on Rikers Island and upstate prisons, surrounded by rape and other horrors, but also mentored younger prisoners as a basketball coach — encouraging them to leave crime behind.
In between stints behind bars, he suffered from flashbacks and his own crimes escalated. Belcher is pictured in his orange prison uniform, from the chest up, and he says, “I was no longer able to experience joy, except when playing basketball.”
His lawyers and I wondered whether a jury could sympathize, given what he’d done. Chammah, in a light green dress shirt, sits at a table with Baldwin and Belcher’s defense attorney, a White man with a white goatee and wearing a dark blue polo shirt, who says, “That [line] between explanation and excuse is something we always have to be careful of.”
Belcher is in his prison uniform and his hands are on his thighs, poised to stand up from a chair. Belcher says the hardest part of the trial was seeing the Embry family’s pain. He still didn’t understand why he killed her. I realized perhaps nobody would have a satisfying answer.
Baldwin, wearing a light blue jacket and carrying her purse and other belongings, pulls out a chair to sit at a table, a sole mug filled with pencils and pens.
A black box appears, with the words: But Baldwin’s work forces us to ask: “When we consider that void, do we see a monster or a soul in torment?”
Baldwin sits at a table working, one hand typing on a laptop and the other resting on a paper next to a coffee mug.
Belcher, in his orange prison uniform and visible from the back, is walking away from a chair to return to his cell.

Jackie Roche is a cartoonist specializing in nonfiction comics about history and current events.

Read the original long-form narrative here.

CREDITS

Editors Raghuram Vadarevu, Meredith Rizzo and Akiba Solomon

Production coordinator Mara Corbett

Copy editor Ghazala Irshad

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Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer whose book, “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty”, won the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright and H.F. Guggenheim fellow, he has reported on a range of criminal justice subjects, including jail conditions, sheriffs, wrongful convictions, and art by incarcerated people.