CRF Blog

Meet the Woman Who Helps Humanize Murderers

by Bill Hayes

In Meet the Woman Who Helps Humanize Murderers, MEL magazine profiles Jennifer Wynn, whose “job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes.”

Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.)

More often than not, mitigation specialists are paid for by the criminal court. Defendants in death penalty cases can rarely afford their own attorneys, much less a mitigation specialist.

“The most important job, whether it’s a capital case or non-capital case, is to tell the lived experience of the defendant,” Wynn said. That experience is harrowing. Defendants, particularly in capital cases, oftentimes have suffered physical and emotional victimization themselves. According to a study of life histories of 43 men on death row, “Severe and multiple forms of abuse were endemic” and “typically multigenerational.”

Mark Pickett, an attorney who has worked on dozens of capital cases, told me, “I’m sure there are a handful of outliers, but I can’t think of a single case off the top of my head where the client didn’t suffer some form of serious abuse in childhood. The cycle of abuse in these cases typically goes back several generations and is often combined with extreme poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, neglect, and untreated serious mental illness.”

It falls to the jury to decide if the mitigators (elements or factors that lessen culpability which a jury may weigh in deciding whether or not to impose a death sentence) outweigh the aggravators (statutorily-defined elements that the state must prove exist beyond a reasonable doubt, in order to certify a case death penalty-eligible). [more]