Death-penalty mitigation expert Scharlette Holdman.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY Samantha Kennedy

Scharlette Holdman, a pioneering death penalty opponent devoted to exploring and telling the life stories of people facing execution, died Wednesday of cancer at her home in New Orleans. She was 70.

Sometimes called “the Angel of Death Row,” she worked at the time of her death under the auspices of the Center for Capital Assistance.

“She kept discovering new ways to tell a complete narrative of a human being. And she showed all the rest of us how to do it,” said defense attorney Denny LeBoeuf, a neighbor who worked with her to defend people detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Since restoring the option of capital punishment in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court has required that each death sentence must take into account the defendant’s background, mental capacity, circumstances and motives.

Holdman’s methods paved the way for a line of defense now enshrined in the American Bar Association’s legal guidelines.

She also was a mentor who trained hundreds of people how to get to the root of a defendant’s background.

“Scharlette’s influence is so broad that anybody who is doing mitigation is informed by her, even if they’ve never heard of her. All roads lead back to her,” said defense attorney Jimmie Lohman, who first worked with Holdman in 1979 at the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice, where she scoured the state looking for lawyers to represent people on death row.

Holdman grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, graduating from high school in 1964. “Our household was just as racist as many other households in the South. Every day was filled with it,” said her older sister Linda Ball.

Holdman graduated from Memphis State University with a degree in anthropology and continued her studies in anthropology, getting a master’s from the University of Oregon and a doctorate from the University of Hawaii.

Though she didn’t keep a conventional list of job credentials, one of her earliest jobs seems to have been with a group opposing the Vietnam War.

“She always had a cause,” Ball said. “And she was so selfless. When she was young, she usually owned one dress, one pair of panties, one pair of shoes. And if she met someone who needed it, she would give that away. I always told her that it was like having Jesus in the family.”

A stalwart for civil liberties and racial justice who led ACLU offices in three states, Holdman’s work sprang from her great curiosity about people and was fueled by her opposition to the death penalty, which was widely used across the South during the 1980s and '90s.

Over her 40-year career, she worked for high-profile defendants such as Gabby Gifford shooter and mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. But she spent most of her life laboring to uncover the life histories of little-known defendants who faced execution.  

Above all, she advocated trying to understand the people she helped to represent. While preparing for Muhammad’s military trial, she studied Islam. Last year, she traveled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

She conveyed this approach to those she mentored, including mitigation specialist Samantha Kennedy. “She taught me that there’s always a story, but we never know what it is,” Kennedy said, describing how Holdman taught her to eat dinner with her clients, live in their communities and weave together a tapestry of the life they’d led.

“She would make us practice how you ask questions,” Kennedy said. “She always said, ‘If people are answering yes or no, you’ve lost your interview.’ ”

More than anything else, the work required patience, Holdman preached. “I might be seven months into the work when his mom finally tells me the thing that she’s never told anyone in her life,” Kennedy said.

As a storyteller, Holdman could be alternately poignant and hilarious. In 2011, she told public radio host Ira Glass about a client in California who, among other things, believed that his mother lived in a soda can. A psychiatrist had found the man mentally competent, and thus eligible for execution, at least in part because they’d played a game of tic-tac-toe and the man won.

That sparked the imagination of Holdman, who knew of tic-tac-toe-playing chickens from Tennessee county fairs and found a similarly talented bird at a Santa Cruz boardwalk. The man’s lawyers then unsuccessfully petitioned the court to allow the bird’s admission. “Who can doubt a chicken?” she quipped.

“There was no limit to her dogged determination,” Lohman said. “It wasn’t about winning. It was about saving someone’s life.”

Survivors include two children, Summer Lindzey of New Orleans and James “Tad” Lindzey of Medellín, Colombia, and two sisters, Linda Ball of New Orleans and Brenda Holdman of Destin, Florida.

A private Muslim funeral ceremony was held Thursday. She was interred in Pineview Memorial Park Cemetery in Slidell.