2023 Feature, Medium Newsroom winner

The Mercy Workers

About the Project

The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah spent more than three years developing and reporting “The Mercy Workers,” a rare look at a secretive profession of “mitigation specialists” who attempt to save prisoners from the death penalty. They unearth childhood trauma, mental illness, broad policy failures, and all kinds of other material that persuades juries, and even prosecutors, to choose less severe sentences.

In an era of political tension between punitive and merciful responses to crime, Chammah wanted to show how hard it is to uncover the information that can make people compassionate about those who commit crimes — and felt he could only do this persuasively by witnessing the work himself. So he spent several years developing trust with mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin, and worked with her to find an ethical way that he could watch her work in a single case.

In the article, Chammah tells the story of James Bernard Belcher, who was convicted of raping and murdering Jennifer Embry in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1996. Chammah accompanied Baldwin on her investigation into Belcher’s past, and spent more than a week with her in the field, knocking on doors and interviewing witnesses in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. He developed this into a sweeping, cinematic narrative about how Belcher’s family sought to escape segregation in Florida, only to end up in New York City’s most violent neighborhoods, which shaped Belcher’s life from an early age.

Chammah was present when Belcher’s father revealed to Baldwin that he had been stabbed — and nearly killed — by Belcher’s mother decades earlier. Chammah read thousands of pages of court and prison records to tell the story of how Belcher was traumatized by spending his teenage years in Rikers Island and upstate New York prisons, following several small thefts, and the resulting damage to his stability and mental health.

After months of shadowing Baldwin, Chammah then spent two weeks in Jacksonville reporting on the sentencing trial which would determine whether her work was successful in convincing a jury to extend mercy — in the form of a life sentence — or whether Belcher would face execution. He sat next to Belcher’s own mother as the jury read the result.

Chammah’s article is a unique, emotionally immersive, and meticulously reported look at what it takes to create a more merciful criminal justice system.

Judges Comments

By centering the humanity of all the characters, The Marshall Project moves us beyond the familiar narratives of guilt and innocence to illuminate that murky area of excusing a heinous crime versus attempting to understand it. Through remarkably in-depth, nuanced reporting, this story highlights a rarely told part of death penalty cases.