A Light For Life On Death Row? A Unique Story in Graphics

The Marshall Project: In 2022, I [Maurice Chammah, Staff Writer at The Marshall Project ] spent several weeks shadowing investigator Sara Baldwin as she tried to save a man from execution. Bernard Belcher had killed a young woman named Jennifer Embry; despite deep remorse for his actions, he couldn’t explain why he did it.

Baldwin’s goal was to unearth his life story, looking for material that would persuade a jury to choose mercy. Her job title is “mitigation specialist,” but I started calling her a “mercy worker,” seeing in her profession a set of lessons for how to build a less punitive country.

And it really is work. I watched her knock on doors for days. But eventually it paid off, when Belcher’s parents revealed episodes of bloody violence that formed their son’s earliest memories. . . .

I got into journalism because I love writing and can endlessly tinker with a sentence, and so I found it difficult to condense my 8,000-word story to around 40 panels. But the process helped me see how Belcher’s sense of his own trauma was defined by key visual scenes in his own mind.

Roche based her drawings on photos and videos I’d gathered while reporting over months in New York and Florida, making color choices that help you keep track of the courtroom and prison (greens, grays, browns).

She sets moments from the 1970s in black and white — except for the blood, which remains starkly red on the page, just as it had in people’s memories.

We enlisted illustrator Jackie Roche to create a version for News Inside, a free Marshall Project publication that circulates behind bars. Many incarcerated readers experienced traumas like the ones in this story, but they also tend to have lower rates of literacy, and visual storytelling can make our reporting more accessible to them.

Bernard Belcher being interviewed by Sarah Baldwin. A photo of the victim, Jennifer Embry, is above them.

“The way the text is presented in small sections can be helpful to readers who struggle with long texts,” Roche told me.

A comic can also grab new readers outside prison, when they’re “standing in line on their lunch break,” and “filling in the moments between the panels with their imagination,” Roche added.

The complete 40-panel comic-style version is online free, here.

The full 8000-word article is available free, here.

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. We have an impact on the system through journalism, rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.

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