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The Mercy Workers

For three decades, a little-known group of “mitigation specialists” has helped save death-penalty defendants by documenting their childhood traumas. A rare look inside one case.

The first mystery was who could have done such a thing, who could leave someone like that.

Jennifer Embry was found in her bathtub in January 1996. She was 29. Her younger brother Ricky had come looking for her after she failed to show up for her shift as an X-ray technician. “The door just came open,” he later testified. “I hoped it was all a dream.”

The autopsy said Embry had been raped, strangled and drowned in her Jacksonville, Florida, townhouse. There were no obvious culprits. But near her body, police found a green slipper with the DNA of an unknown male. Her family waited two years before analysts had a match: James Bernard Belcher. He was 39, and had spent much of his life behind bars.

This article was published in partnership with The Guardian.

The mystery of ‘Who?’ gave way to ‘Why?,’ but the nearly 1,500 pages of Belcher’s trial transcript were mostly devoid of real insights. The defense presented bewildered cousins and younger prisoners who described him as a generous mentor. “Something in him allows him to have…a positive influence on other people, even when he can’t run his own life,” public defender Alan Chipperfield told the jury. “It’s a mystery, and there are some things about human behavior we just don’t know.”

The prosecution portrayed Embry’s murder as the culmination of Belcher’s life spent preying upon women: As a teenager, he robbed them on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. At age 29, he used a false identity to trick a Florida woman into sharing her address, and then bound and gagged her at gunpoint inside her bathroom. She testified that he masturbated over her back. While this crime was sexual, he pleaded guilty to armed burglary and aggravated assault. He spent less than two years behind bars before getting out and killing Embry.

It took the jury 16 minutes to recommend that Belcher be executed.

Defense attorney Chipperfield was used to losing — this was 2001, and the death penalty was popular, especially in Florida. But this case frustrated him. Belcher had denied knowing Embry entirely when police questioned him, despite the DNA match, and he refused to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. “He had no defense, and he knew that,” Chipperfield recalled in a recent interview. “He was just a stone wall.”

A black and white image of two Black women in dresses and a Black man in a graduation cap and gown is displayed on a courtroom monitor.

At James Bernard Belcher’s September 2022 resentencing hearing, prosecutors displayed photos of Jennifer Embry (left), who was murdered by Belcher in Jacksonville, Florida, in January 1996.

Belcher was still on death row in 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court sent a seismic shock through the Florida legal system, ruling that the state was giving judges too much power in death penalty decisions. Dozens of prisoners were entitled to new hearings — not over guilt, just punishment. Belcher’s case stuck out as a rare courtroom rematch: The lead prosecutor from 2001, Bernie de la Rionda, met with the Embry family and decided to come out of retirement to seek a new death sentence. The defense team would feature Chipperfield, who was still working into his 70s, and Lewis Buzzell, his original trial partner.

But there was a new player. While both sides waited years for the resentencing hearing to be scheduled, the public defenders’ office hired an investigator named Sara Baldwin to work as a “mitigation specialist” in death penalty cases. Her job would be to mine Belcher’s past for information that might sway a jury towards mercy — to unravel some of the mysteries of his life in order to save it.

One morning in the summer of 2018, Baldwin, 56, drove west from Jacksonville, the palm trees of her hometown giving way to the Southern pines that line the road to Florida’s death row. It was her first meeting with Belcher, and his lawyers had warned her to expect an icy reception.

But the white-bearded 58-year-old, seated in the visitation room of Union Correctional Institution, was talkative — effusive even. Maybe it was his new wife, a Swiss woman he met through a pen-pal program who now visited him regularly. Maybe it was all the years of isolation and reflection. Or maybe it was Baldwin herself, with her messy yellow notepad, gravelly voice and unflinching eye contact.

“After five minutes with her, I [couldn’t] stop talking,” Belcher told me when I visited him on death row last summer. “You want to make her proud.”

His new trial, technically called a sentencing hearing, would determine whether he would die by execution. Some in prison feel the alternative — a life sentence, with no chance of release — is worse than death, but Baldwin could tell Belcher wanted to live. “You can have a valuable, meaningful life that’s worth living behind those walls,” she told me. “You can influence a lot of people who are going to get out.”

Over the course of 15 meetings across four years, Belcher eventually admitted that he had lied to police about not knowing Embry; the two had been secretly seeing each other. But he made clear he was still struggling to understand why he’d raped and killed her. “I don’t have the words to tell you what is in my heart,” Baldwin recalls him saying. She wondered if trauma from his past had produced a kind of disassociation, since, as she put it bluntly, “It’s not normal human behavior to kill someone.”

A White woman faces the camera for a portrait shot. She sits on a chair, with her hands placed on top of each other on her lap.

Mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin in June 2022 at the Duval County Office of the Public Defender, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Like her more famous anti-death penalty peers, such as Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, Baldwin argues the idea that people should be judged on more than their worst actions. But she also speaks in more spiritual terms about the value of unearthing her clients’ lives. “We look through a more merciful lens,” she told me, describing her role as that of a “witness who knows and understands, without condemning.” This work, she believes, can have a healing effect on the client, the people they hurt, and even society as a whole. “The horrible thing to see is the crime,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Please, please, look past that, there’s a person here, and there’s more to it than you think.’”

The United States has inherited competing impulses: It’s “an eye for an eye,” but also “blessed are the merciful.” Some Americans believe that our criminal justice system — rife with excessively long sentences, appalling prison conditions and racial disparitiesfails to make us safer. And yet, tell the story of a violent crime and a punishment that sounds insufficient, and you’re guaranteed to get eyerolls.

In the midst of that impasse, I’ve come to see mitigation specialists like Baldwin as ambassadors from a future where we think more richly about violence. For the last few decades, they have documented the traumas, policy failures, family dynamics and individual choices that shape the lives of people who kill. Leaders in the field say it’s impossible to accurately count mitigation specialists — there is no formal license — but there may be fewer than 1,000. They’ve actively avoided media attention, and yet the stories they uncover occasionally emerge in Hollywood scripts and Supreme Court opinions. Over three decades, mitigation specialists have helped drive down death sentences from more than 300 annually in the mid-1990s to fewer than 30 in recent years.

I met Baldwin in 2014, while reporting on the death penalty, and asked her a few years ago if I could shadow her work. Among her clients, I was drawn to Belcher because he’d spent time as a teenager in a jail on the notoriously violent Rikers Island. The 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder, another man held at Rikers when he was a teenager, prompted New York City leaders to discuss closing the jail complex. I wondered what effect a year on Rikers in the 1970s had on the course of Belcher’s life.

I asked Belcher in a letter if I could witness Baldwin’s work in his case, and he said yes. The COVID-19 pandemic put his case’s timeline into limbo for a while, but in January 2022, the pair learned that the trial would be in September. With nine months to go, she flew to New York City to hunt for people from his past.

One morning in February 2022, Baldwin and I ducked into a nursing home in a quiet suburb of Long Island, New York. The vicious winter wind gave way to smooth jazz and soft beeps. There were no other visitors in sight, and a nurse pointed us to the single Black man in the cafeteria: 86-year-old James Belcher Sr. He was watching television from his wheelchair, and Baldwin had to raise her voice over the cheers of “The Price is Right.” “We want to talk to you about your son,” she said. “We’ve traveled a great distance.”

“Alright, alright, alright, that’s no problem,” Belcher said, eyes glistening. He let her push him down the hallway to his small, bare room. His stutter was profound, joining with the aftereffects of a stroke to make a project of each short sentence.

Over the course of two meetings, two days apart, Belcher patted his chest and belly to coax out memories of the 1950s, when he came back from an Army deployment in Vietnam and studied math on a college baseball scholarship. Then he met Earline Seabrook, the high-spirited daughter of his mother’s friend. “He was quite the sensation on the baseball field,” Baldwin told me. “And she was beautiful.” After a quick courtship, the couple married.

Earline, who now bears the surname of her third husband, Floyd, was the third of nine children. Her father, Oliver Seabrook, owned a confectionery in Jacksonville, Florida, at a time when few Black people had businesses. The entrepreneur smarted at the idea of his daughters working as maids for White people — a likely outcome if they stayed — and he supported Floyd’s older sisters when they planned to move to New York City.

Floyd wanted to follow them. Her husband wanted to follow her. So Belcher Sr. dropped out of college and, in the late 1950s, the couple followed the path of some 6 million Black Americans who left the South during the Great Migration.

Shortly after the Belchers moved to Brooklyn, New York, their son was born. He was named James after his father but was soon known by his middle name, Bernard. Two years later they had a daughter, Sharon, and two years after that they split up. “New York changed her,” Belcher Sr. said. “She was going out on me.” (Floyd denies cheating on her then-husband.)

Around the time of the split, Floyd sent Bernard and his sister to Jacksonville, to live with her parents. “I had no say in all that,” the elder Belcher said. In his telling, his ex-wife soon married Raymond Brown, a “nasty man” and “playboy type,” who died in the 1970s.

Sitting next to Baldwin, I noticed her tendency to avoid direct questions, instead using raw bursts of curiosity to disarm:“I’d sure like to know more about this Ray person.” “I just need you to help me get underneath these adjectives.” Belcher would mumble and then say “forget it,” and she’d beg him to repeat himself. Eventually, he revealed that the stepfather had punched and beaten his son and daughter.

After meeting the elder Belcher, Baldwin told me, “One of the last thoughts I had before I went to sleep last night was this idea of James stuttering intensely and being an earnest type, and then Earline meeting the very dynamic, very attractive Ray, who she just swooned for.”

Then the mitigation specialist stopped herself. “Now, that’s my imagination,” she said. “You have to fact-check everybody.”

So much of Baldwin’s work involves stories that can’t be easily confirmed, but every once in a while, an astonishing morsel of evidence survives. On our second visit to the nursing home, Baldwin noticed that the father’s hands were mottled with scars. She asked if his ex-wife was the source. The elder Belcher said he confronted her about seeing other men, and she slashed him. “The knife was her favorite thing,” he said.

Belcher’s hand moved to his stomach and he lifted his shirt. His belly looked like a map, divided by a long pink scar. The slashing put him in the hospital for a week, and he still has nightmares to this day. “She almost killed me,” he told Baldwin.

Their son didn’t witness the stomach slashing, but according to his mother, the young Bernard saw blood dripping from his father’s hands after other incidents. Sliding into Baldwin’s style of narrative hypothesis, I wondered if the child imagined that he, too, could find himself on the other end of that blade.

We were the first people he’d told about the slashing in decades, he said. As we got up to leave, Baldwin hugged him, and he told her, “I love you.” I was shocked. They’d spent no more than three hours together. But perhaps it was a kind of unfiltered gratitude for feeling heard. “That happens all the time,” Baldwin told me.

The term “mitigation specialist” is often credited to Scharlette Holdman, a brash Southern human rights activist famous for her personal devotion to her clients. The so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, tried to deed his cabin to her. (The federal government stopped him.) Her last client was accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammad. While working his case, Holdman converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. She died in 2017 and had a Muslim burial.

Holdman began a crusade to stop executions in Florida in the 1970s, during a unique moment of American ambivalence towards the punishment. After two centuries of hangings, firing squads and electrocutions, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. The court found that there was no logic guiding which prisoners were executed and which were spared.

The justices eventually let executions resume, but declared, in the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina, that jurors must be able to look at prisoners as individuals and consider “compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind.”

Defense lawyers had long called mothers to the stand, to plead for their children’s lives, but now they enlisted social workers, anthropologists, journalists, ministers and psychologists to dig deeper into family stories. They hunted for the traumas, displacements and inheritances that might illuminate a client’s path to violence.

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“My job is to help people look at my client as a human being,” Elizabeth Vartkessian, a leading mitigation specialist, told me, adding that her profession’s existence is itself a comment on how the system otherwise dehumanizes people. “The system shouldn’t even require it, because it shouldn’t be a question.”

While Black people make up 14% of the U.S. population, they comprise 41% of those on death row, and poverty is common among people sentenced to death. But before mitigation specialists came along, mostly White, middle-class defense lawyers “had very little skill set in understanding the lives of poor people,” says Cessie Alfonso, a longtime New Jersey-based mitigation specialist.

Alfonso, an Afro-Latina, was among the first people of color in the field. She says a second hurdle was getting a homogenous group of defense attorneys to seek out specialists of color: “When I got into the field, attorneys were hiring primarily White people with a huge experiential gap between the client and their world.”

Perhaps because of those gaps in experience, the field came to prize and then demand an intense work ethic. Mitigation specialists collect thousands of pages of records from hospitals, schools, jails and courts, and interview dozens of people in each case. There are no shortcuts to sensitive revelations of family secrets: A crucial story of childhood sexual abuse or a severe brain injury might not appear until the fifth visit with an estranged cousin who happened to witness a key event decades before.

The profession relies more on standards and guidelines — things that someone fulfilling the role must do — rather than formal qualifications. These expectations have slowly been solidified at higher levels of the legal system. In 2003, the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence because defense lawyers had failed to adequately dig into a client’s past. And the American Bar Association published lengthy guidelines, calling this work part of the “standard of care” for death penalty defense teams.

As the field grew, critics cast mitigation specialists as bleeding hearts. For instance, a 2004 training book for Texas prosecutors warned that “mitigation gypsies” would present “testimony about the defendant being abused as a child, bullied in school, hit in the head in a little league ball game, raised in a rich home or a poor home, that he is too young or too old, is left-handed or right-handed, has one parent or two parents, and so on.” For years, these investigators were working in a cultural climate that portrayed criminals as driven by innate and inexplicable evil — think Hannibal Lecter, the forensic psychiatrist turned cannibal in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs.” Trial transcripts from the 1980s and 1990s are full of words like “monster” and “animal.”

In recent years, Hollywood has turned to complicated antiheroes and the “trauma plot,” showing how early adversities can place someone on a path to hurting others. Now, we’re more likely to see a revealing flashback from the villain’s childhood. But the science of early trauma and later violence is still nascent, with a few studies finding high rates of childhood abuse among people on death row. A 2020 neuroscience study found that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause changes in the amygdala, a part of the human brain that governs emotion. These changes, the study suggests, may lead to higher levels of aggression. Although parents’ choices play a key role in these stories, you can also see the hand of a society that allows some children to flourish while others fail.

After leaving the nursing home in Long Island, Baldwin and I drove west to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 1965, a 6-year-old Belcher had come from his grandparents’ home in Florida to live in this area with his mother. “We’re working from a child’s memory,” Baldwin said, using Google Maps to trace the route he walked to his elementary school. In Florida, racial segregation was enforced using Jim Crow laws. New York had an unwritten web of discrimination that isolated Black families in poor neighborhoods like this one. Belcher recalled playing amid garbage.

Where his aunts and uncles were finding their footing in the Northern Black middle class, Belcher’s mother was on a different trajectory. Her second husband, Raymond Brown, sold illegal liquor, ran street lotteries out of his pool hall and beat up people who crossed him. One cousin later told me he often saw “stacks of cash” in their apartment and that Floyd owned multiple fur coats, but that the couple neglected her young son. After a few years, the stepfather’s luck turned — Floyd said he fell out with the “big money people.”

When Belcher was around 10, the family moved into Tompkins Houses, a set of public housing towers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. His relatives remembered the constant muggings and broken elevators and stench of urine. When Belcher was in high school, a security officer shot his friend. He recalled cradling the friend’s head until the ambulance arrived, and spending the rest of the day at school with dried blood on his pants.

A wrinkled, taped black and white photo shows a smiling Black toddler wearing a fedora, plaid blazer and dress pants, standing next to a couch.

An image of a photo of James Bernard Belcher, age unknown, provided by his mother, Earline Floyd.

Baldwin stepped out of the rental car and peered up at the towers. The winter sun was low and the street lights clicked on to illuminate the basketball courts where Belcher spent hours perfecting his game. She snapped pictures to show him when she returned to death row.

Belcher had told Baldwin that as a young teen in the early 1970s he had to gently drag people in the throes of addiction off the courts. But here was where he found his identity, as a talented player who mentored younger kids. One cousin later recalled him hitting a hundred jump shots in a row. Even now, some of Belcher’s clearest memories are of pickup games from decades earlier. “If you can spend a few minutes talking to him about sports, you will see him just light up, and see him become somebody that no juror could kill,” Baldwin told me.

According to police and court records that Baldwin collected, Belcher began to steal at 16. He started with the coat pockets of teachers and escalated to threatening women on the street, holding his hand to mimic a gun in his pocket. When police caught him, his total haul was around $90, which he used to buy nicer clothes. “He is a tall, thin, almost gangling adolescent youth,” wrote a court-appointed psychiatrist, evaluating Belcher to see if he was competent to face court proceedings. (He was.)

“His eyes filled with tears repeatedly,” the psychiatrist continued. “The roots of his restlessness are not entirely clear. Adolescent sexuality may of course be an important factor. He would appear rather an inwardly divided or neurotic individual, rather than an intrinsically anti-social or mischievous one.”

According to these records, Belcher was nearly sent to a residential center for youth, but instead went into the adult prison system. His first stop was a jail on Rikers Island.

Baldwin enlisted Vincent Schiraldi — who recently led Rikers himself for seven months — to interview Belcher. He recalled an incident in which a kid punched a ceiling tile and 30 knives fell to the floor. He found himself in the middle of the ensuing knife fight until officers stormed in with batons. Belcher got a work assignment monitoring a suicide-watch area, where he discovered a man had hung himself. (The details of such stories vary, but not the big picture: Many adults on death row were shaped by violence they witnessed or endured behind bars as teenagers.)

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But the most pervasive threat was sexual: Belcher said he’d witnessed “blanket parties,” assaults in which a group of boys would smother their victim and repeatedly rape him. At 17, he moved to a state prison where, he recalled, his best friend was raped almost every day. Belcher was adamant that he’d never been a victim of sexual assault himself. Schiraldi was skeptical, noting that he would have plenty of reasons to never reveal such a story. But even the vicarious experience would have left a profound mark on a teenager.

Long before Belcher’s family left Jacksonville for New York City, Baldwin’s ancestors made the opposite journey. Her great-grandfather made a fortune running the Otis Elevator Company as Manhattan climbed skyward, but her grandfather fell for Jacksonville’s beaches and sunshine. Despite the weather, Baldwin described her own childhood as frigidly “Victorian,” a world of chinaware and private schools and distant parents. “I was born to be a debutante,” she told me.

Baldwin was essentially raised by a Black nanny named Reatha Lee Jackson. From an early age, Baldwin knew this woman making her dinner also had children of her own: “So I ask her, ‘Reatha, who is looking after them?’ and she said, ‘Nobody.’”

When Baldwin’s older brother began showing signs of hyperactivity, their mother sent him to a boarding school. Baldwin was devastated. She overheard the maids as they questioned her mother’s decision, and she began to see that multiple stories can lie beneath the official one a family tells itself.

By age 9, she was drinking her parents’ Scotch, followed by years of bulimia and two failed marriages. “I had three abortions,” Baldwin told me. “I absolutely felt as though I had killed someone.” (She now has three adult children.)

Then came the dream. Baldwin was raised amid the restrained mores of the Episcopal Church, but when she was 24, she dreamed that a statue of God’s son burst to life. “All the sickness and death in me came pouring out as I confessed and cried at his feet,” she wrote in an unpublished essay. Baldwin is convinced the intensity of her faith has kept her from burning out like many of her peers.

Having followed her first husband to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Baldwin went to social work school in the 1990s and interned with lawyers immersed in the frenzied work of trying to stop executions. After seeing a cross by her desk, one lawyer asked her to meet Ricky Sanderson, a devout Christian on death row who felt that to fully atone for his sins he should give up his appeals. Baldwin could not convince him otherwise, and he was executed in 1998. Among the lessons, she told me, was that “the first person I need to convince about our mitigation is our client.”

In 2003, Baldwin moved back to Jacksonville, where she found the courts were behind other states in funding mitigation work. Judges would refuse to pay her, meaning she sometimes worked for free.

Mitigation investigations are now broadly accepted for youth facing life without parole and anyone facing the death penalty. Their work may also convince prosecutors to let defendants plead guilty and accept a shorter sentence.

Baldwin had a lot of time to tell me her own story, because, aside from the revelations of Belcher’s father, she was mostly striking out.

Over the course of a single day last March, Baldwin and I spent 15 hours driving through four boroughs of New York City, two upstate New York towns, and two New Jersey suburbs, as she knocked on the doors of people from Belcher’s past.

Some seemed like longshots: Belcher, who had spent time at five New York state prisons throughout the 1970s and 1980s, directed Baldwin to a corrections officer he dimly remembered befriending. The man wasn’t home. Throughout the day, she tucked handwritten notes into door jambs and explained herself to neighbors who reacted as though she was from Mars.

At the base of one Manhattan apartment building, Baldwin buzzed the number for one of Belcher’s uncles. When nobody responded, she dialed a phone number that another defense team investigator found online. The uncle picked up and she kept him talking for about five minutes before he hung up. “The state’s going to say Belcher is evil, that he’s a monster, and you and I both know that’s not true,” she told him.

“I don’t want my name out there,” he responded.

It was seeming unlikely that Baldwin would ever piece together the entirety of Belcher’s life, much less get the most credible tellers of that story onto a witness stand thousands of miles away. But as the hours passed, she started to see her defeats in the field as relevant to the story itself.

In 1979, Belcher finished his first prison stint after two years in custody. He was 19 and had an advantage: He was able to enroll at Marist College, a small liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York, where his uncle was the first Black administrator. Belcher says he felt self-conscious as a Black ex-prisoner among mostly White freshmen who knew nothing of the criminal justice system. While trying to concentrate in class, he’d flash back to the rapes he’d witnessed in prison. “I was no longer able to experience joy, except when playing basketball,” he told Baldwin. He later told me he wanted to apologize to the uncle who helped him get into college: “He did a lot for me, and I wasn’t ready for it.”

An older Black woman wearing glasses is standing with her arms crossed.

Earline Floyd, mother of James Bernard Belcher, at the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida, at the 2022 resentencing hearing that would determine whether her son would receive the death penalty or life in prison.

Belcher’s aunt encouraged his mother to push him toward mental health treatment, but she refused. After 18 months, Baldwin learned, Belcher had committed a robbery on campus and was expelled.

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Over the next few decades, Belcher veered further from the family tree. His aunts, uncles and cousins entered public service, higher education, media, and finance. For instance, his uncle Larry Seabrook served on the New York City Council. His cousin Wayne Deas wrote for The New York Times, and then became a mortgage broker and financial consultant on Wall Street.

In the meantime, Belcher spent the 1980s working low-wage jobs and serving more time for robberies. He briefly moved to Arizona for a girlfriend, then went to Jacksonville where he had a son with a different woman. His family members pulled back on supporting him. Then came a major escalation: At age 29, Belcher conned his way into a woman’s house and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint.

Baldwin drew a parallel between the way Belcher’s relatives stopped helping him in his 20s and 30s, and her own difficulties getting them to consider testifying on his behalf — or even to answer the door when she knocked. “They didn’t show up for Bernard then, and they’re not showing up for him now,” she said.

But she also zoomed out. If he had been released today, he might have gotten help through a reentry program. In the 1980s and 1990s, as prison populations boomed, such programs weren’t yet common, so he was mostly on his own.

After Baldwin flew back to Florida, she visited Belcher on death row. She explained that many of his relatives wouldn’t answer the door, much less come and testify on his behalf. He had a theory: They had PTSD from the racism they suffered as children in Jacksonville, and they didn’t feel secure enough in their positions to be associated with a rapist and a murderer. Belcher himself was 4 years old when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of a child who integrated an all-White school.

Baldwin acknowledged her limits as a White person to understand these fears. But she also wanted the jurors to encounter the contradictions and confusion inherent in his story. “You do want them to feel how Bernard felt — he felt lost,” she said. “I don’t want to make it all nice and neat.”

One morning, several months after the New York trip, Baldwin met with Belcher’s lawyers in Jacksonville. They proved lawyerly — that is to say, cautious. Despite all that the mitigation specialist had learned, there was still such a distance between the stories from Belcher’s youth and his crimes. Perhaps an expert witness, like a psychologist, could speculate on how trauma entered his adolescent brain and infected the links between love, intimacy, power and violence. But did that shed any light on Belcher’s two sexual violations of women — one fatal — inside their bathrooms? “The weirdness of this crime is kind of a big mystery,” said defense lawyer Alan Chipperfield.

There was also a risk — common in these cases — that jurors would hear the talk of Belcher’s youth as a weak effort to justify his crimes. “That dichotomy between explanation and excuse is something we always have to be careful of,” said Lewis Buzzell, one of his lawyers.

After lunch, Baldwin and I drove to the apartment of Belcher’s mother, Earline Floyd, who was now 82 years old. All the stories I’d heard thus far involved glitz and violence, but we were greeted by a small, cheery woman in a headwrap and oversized T-shirt.

A Black woman points out a framed photograph in her living room to a White woman.
A White woman writes in a notepad on her lap.
Earline
Floyd (left) at her apartment in Jacksonville, Florida, describes the childhood of her son, James Bernard Belcher, to mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin, in June 2022.
Baldwin
takes notes during her June 2022 interview with Earline Floyd.

Belcher had said his mother hit him as a child — once so hard that he spent several days home from school. Baldwin got Floyd to talk about how her own mother had used physical punishment, which was common and socially acceptable in the 1940s: “You take off your clothes, and you get on the bed, and all the neighbors knew who was getting a beating — we’d be screaming,” she recalled.

Floyd said her mother’s abuse was nothing compared to what her first husband did. Belcher Sr. had described his ex-wife as unfaithful and violent. According to Floyd, he was the dangerous one, a man whose excessive jealousy and need for control led him to stalk her outside the house, and beat and choke her regularly. (At their son’s trial, the elder Belcher acknowledged violence on his part, but said that she was the one who started the fights and used a weapon.)

“Every time he raised his hand to hit me, I would cut him,” Floyd recalled. “I used to carry my razor with me every day, everywhere I went.” She told me their children saw her fight back, and she later wondered how that might have affected them.

The violence escalated, and Floyd reached her limit. “I had made up my mind that I was going to kill him, honest to God,” she said. When he accosted her in the street, she nearly did — with a razor, rather than the knife in his recollection, but their stories basically aligned.

Over the next few months, Baldwin learned her trip to New York was bearing fruit. One of the uncles who had not answered his door was now calling family members and encouraging them to get involved. Wayne Deas, Belcher’s cousin on Wall Street, agreed to fly to Jacksonville and appear in court.

Deas told me some in the family did not approve of his decision, but Baldwin’s knock on his door had startled him, and he realized, “This is a life that’s in our hands.”

In September 2022 Belcher was tried at the Duval County Courthouse. Its tall pillars are visible from throughout Jacksonville. Inside, the floors were so polished you could catch hazy glimpses of your own reflection.

One of the two prosecutors, Alan Mizrahi, described Jennifer Embry as “the kind of woman who pursued her dreams with all of her heart, with all of her mind, and with all of her soul.” Belcher, he said, attacked her to “fulfill his own deviant and violent sexual desires,” taking her “naked, raped, bruised and bleeding body” and “strangling her to death…with his own bare hands.”

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The victim’s brother Ricky Embry whimpered and pinched his nose as he described finding his sister in her bathtub. As he testified, the jurors saw photos of foam emerging from her mouth. “During that moment I felt more pain than I have ever felt in my life,” Embry said. He remembered placing signs across the city offering rewards before police identified Belcher, and “watching my parents age and long for justice for their baby girl.”

At the Duval County Courthouse, defense lawyer Alan Chipperfield (left) and prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (right) argue the fate of James Bernard Belcher (center), for his 1996 murder of Jennifer Embry.

A short woman in dark clothes took the stand, revealing in a whispery voice that she was Wanda Barksdale, Belcher’s sexual assault victim from 1988. She recalled being a young mother walking near the courthouse when Belcher impersonated a courthouse employee using a false name and wearing a pin-striped suit. He said he could help her find a job, but strung her along over multiple days as he drew out her address.

Then one night, he snuck into her home and tied her up at gunpoint. “He gagged me and my shirt was pulled up over my head,” she said. “I remember feeling his skin against my skin...I could feel a warmth on my skin, drops of…” She didn’t finish the sentence. The jurors stared in horror. “I remember laying there and saying, ‘I didn’t want to die like this.’ I didn’t want to be found.”

Given the mystery of how Belcher had gotten into Embry’s apartment, the prosecutors implied that he might have manipulated her in a similar way. They called him a “smooth operator.”

There are always unknowns in criminal cases, but when the death penalty is on the table, the prosecution benefits when jurors can fill in gaps with the most incriminating possible explanations. “People default to thinking the worst of other people,” Baldwin told me, and the prosecutors want “the jury to think he’s Ted Bundy.”

Baldwin scribbled notes on the jurors and texted ideas to Belcher’s legal team, which included four White lawyers and one Black lawyer, Diana Johnson. It was Johnson who placed the family stories in a historical frame and made sure the jury heard the word “segregation.”

On the stand, Earline Floyd admitted that she went years without visiting her son in the adult jails and prisons where he spent much of his adolescence. And when he got out, she dismissed her siblings’ pleas to get him counseling. “I didn’t think my child was ‘crazy’ — that’s what I was dumb enough to think,” she said.

Floyd was describing her most intimate failings as a mother under oath in front of two dozen strangers, including some who wanted to see her son strapped to a gurney and killed. On cross-examination, the prosecutors got her to admit that she tried to teach her son not to hurt women since she’d been a victim of violence herself.

But the defense team was pleased with the mother’s testimony. “That was 16 hours of preparation,” said Johnson, the defense lawyer, with relief. Baldwin jumped in: “That was years of preparation.”

A White woman, holding her phone with both hands, stands in the hallway of a courthouse.

Sara Baldwin waits to enter the resentencing hearing of James Bernard Belcher at the Duval County Courthouse.

Then psychologist James Campbell testified about how “adverse childhood experiences” like abuse, neglect, divorce — and witnessing domestic violence — can warp a young brain and scramble “fight or flight” reactions later in life.

Frank Duffy, a former beat cop from the public housing towers where Belcher lived, told stories in thick Brooklynese about getting his own teeth knocked out, and pitying the children who had to grow up in such a violent environment. It had been Baldwin’s idea to look for him.

Vincent Schiraldi, the former New York City jail commissioner, described the Rikers Island jail where Belcher went at 16, where kids “were constantly witnessing sexual assaults of other kids” and guards were too overwhelmed to step in.

Then the jury got a glimpse of who Belcher might have become in an alternate universe. Wayne Deas, the son of Floyd’s sister, arrived in a double-breasted suit with a pocket square. He said Belcher had been his protector and role model when they were kids in Brooklyn — more an older brother than a cousin. Their paths diverged when Deas was bussed to a better school in a mostly White neighborhood. Later on, while his cousin was trapped on Rikers Island, Deas’ parents worked long hours to send their son to private school.

“He’s a model tragedy in Black American history,” Deas testified about his cousin. “I often go back to look at the neighborhood and take pictures … and they tell me, ‘Well, Joe is dead,’ or ‘Mary’s dead,’ or, ‘This person’s on crack’ or ‘This person’s in jail.” He began to cry.

Brandishing a printout from Wikipedia about New York City Mayor Eric Adams, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda tried to disrupt the narrative that Belcher’s childhood hardships explained his life of crime. Adams is roughly Belcher’s age and also spent some of his youth in the same parts of Brooklyn before becoming a police officer and politician. “There are a bunch of people who have had terrible childhoods that have then turned their lives around and become constructive members of society,” he said.

At one point, de la Rionda clicked through pictures of Jennifer Embry and used her race to frame a vote for death as an equalizer: “The fact that it was a Black female doesn’t mean that her life is less valued than a White female,” he said. “Think about what he did…Doesn’t that really define who he is?”

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

Where de la Rionda brought to mind Dr. Phil, with a mustache, dramatic cadence and appeals to what he described as common sense, lead defender Chipperfield reminded me of Mr. Rogers. “You have a right to feel sad and feel sympathy” for the victim, he told the jury, but Belcher would already die in prison. They simply needed to exclude him from the narrow pool of the very worst murderers.

As is common, the defense chose not to put Belcher on the witness stand, so the prosecution couldn’t cross-examine him about past crimes, or spin his lack of outward emotion against him. At the defense table, wearing slacks and a tie, he did visibly tear up when younger prisoners took the stand and described him as a father figure. They said he’d convinced them to enroll in classes and repair their relationships beyond the walls.

Rodney Walker, who was incarcerated with Belcher, said corrections officers relied on him to quell fights, and he recalled asking him, “Is you police? Because you act like one.” (Walker later told me he hoped this would curry favor among White jurors, who he assumed supported the police.)

“Someone like Mr. Belcher in prison is not just important to the inmates,” said Chipperfield in his closing argument. “We all have an interest in prison inmates getting out and being better people, so they don’t go back in.”

Every state with the death penalty — there are 27 — has slightly different rules, but in Florida, jurors must rank perpetrators on an imaginary scale. Those in Belcher’s trial were tasked with weighing “aggravating” factors like his prior crimes and the “sexual battery” of Embry against dozens of “mitigating” factors Baldwin had uncovered. Lawyers call them “aggs” and “mits.” If every juror’s “aggs” outweigh their “mits,” the jury moves to a final vote on life or death.

In Belcher’s prior trial, just nine jurors had voted for death. Now, under a new state law, they’d need to be unanimous. “If you simply see a spark of humanity in Mr. Belcher, even if no one else sees it, you can give it the weight of life,” Chipperfield explained in his closing argument.

After several hours, the jurors returned. Baldwin clutched the hand of Belcher’s mother as the clerk read out the votes on individual mitigating factors — dozens of statements that encapsulated Belcher’s life. I thought of Saint Peter reading out such a list at heaven’s gate. Finally, the clerk reached the key finding: At least one juror had come out of the weighing exercise in Belcher’s favor. He would be re-sentenced to life in prison.

Floyd repeated the phrase, “Thank you, Jesus,” like an incantation. Baldwin whispered, “You are free, Earline.”

During a break in the trial, Belcher’s cousin Wayne Deas quietly approached Ricky Embry, the victim’s brother, and offered condolences on behalf of his own extended family. The brother nodded tearfully. This fleeting moment underscored how little the trial offered the Embry family, beyond hope for retribution and disappointment at its refusal. The family did not respond to my own requests to speak.

In the weeks following the trial, I spoke to four jurors. Most said they were surprised and troubled by a glaring fact: Eleven out of 12 members of the jury were White, and none were Black. Many of the Black people who had been called for jury duty were sent home after saying they could never hand down a death sentence. (Defense lawyers say this process, known as “death qualification,” guarantees racial disparities, while prosecutors have argued it’s necessary to get a jury that can consider the punishment.)

Juror Bridget McDonald told me she actually opposed the death penalty in the past, but this case changed her mind. “I think we were all on the same page that this guy did not have a good life,” she told me. “Did he have a life that was so horrid that it defends the fact that he killed someone? At least half of us didn’t think so.”

The one Latina juror, a Navy veteran named Yvonne Nunez, told me she was on the fence at first. She thought Belcher’s childhood was “irrelevant,” but also that the prosecution failed to establish whether he planned the crime, or explain how he got into Embry’s house. Similarly, two jurors who voted in Belcher’s favor — they declined to be named, citing fears for their safety — said that Belcher’s crime simply wasn’t the worst of the worst. It wasn’t, in the words of Florida law, “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” like the actions of a child rapist or school mass shooter.

But it was clear Baldwin’s work had shaped their perceptions of Belcher. “It was his personal decision to do what he did, but society has some responsibility for making him who he was,” said one juror. “Society helped to make this monster.”

On a rainy morning three months after the trial, I went to see Belcher at his new prison near the Georgia border. He said he felt relief; he no longer woke up each day under the threat of execution. But after two decades spent mostly in solitary confinement, he was ambivalent about finding his place amid a new generation of young men. “The first thing I have to do, to get my head into the game, is sit down and think and get myself a routine,” he told me.

He kept returning to memories of his childhood and adolescence that the trial stirred up: playing in a landfill, cradling his friend’s head after a shooting, visiting the more stable homes of other kids. “I don’t like to use the word ‘traumatized’ for myself, but it probably fits,” he said. “When you’re living something every day, it’s hard to see it.”

A Black man in a prison uniform sits on a chair, facing the camera for a portrait shot.

James Bernard Belcher in December 2022 at Hamilton Correctional Institution Annex, in Jasper, Florida, where he is now serving a life sentence for the murder of Jennifer Embry.

These memories also seemed to be linked by the message that he didn’t deserve much in life. He said he was touched when his defense team made him feel he did deserve their labor. “I want our clients to see we went to the trouble, to see we really care,” Baldwin told me. “In the end, that’s what matters most.”

Belcher said he’d tried to remain impassive during the trial because he feared that jurors would misinterpret his expressions. But the hardest part, he said, was seeing the Embry family. “My job at that time was not to look at them or try to judge how they’re feeling,” he said. “I understand if they don’t want to bring the temperature down.”

Part of the difficulty was that he still, after everything, couldn’t explain why he killed Jennifer Embry. “If I go over it in my head a million times, which I already did, I still can’t come up with an answer,” he told me, his voice cracking. “There was no reason for that to happen to her.”

The “why” of so much violence turns out to be unanswerable, even to those who perpetrate it. Perhaps therapy, neuroscience or other tools we have yet to discover might someday lead us to a clearer story than the one Baldwin was able to tell about Belcher. But in the meantime, the mitigation specialists force us to ask: When we look at the face of someone who has done great wrong, and stare into the void of what we don’t know, do we see a monster or a soul in torment?

Collage credits clockwise from left: 1. Prison bed and sink (Bettman/Getty Images) 2. Map of Jacksonville, Florida (Getty Images) 3. Jennifer Embry (Agnes Lopez photograph of image displayed by the State Attorney Office for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida) 4. Florida state seal (photo by Maurice Chammah) 5. James Bernard Belcher (photo by Octavio Jones) 6. Sara Baldwin (photo by Octavio Jones) 7. Map of Brooklyn (Brooklyn Public Library) 8. Brooklyn neighborhood scene (Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos) 9. James Bernard Belcher as a child (courtesy of Earline Floyd)

Read the illustrated narrative here.

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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.