Summer Centered: Chelsea Richardson ’18 Aids Mitigation in Capital Punishment Cases
The political science major is helping the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office build defenses for clients facing the death penalty.
Of the 50 U.S. states, 27 currently impose the death penalty. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended a ten-year moratorium on executions, Virginia has executed the third most people in the U.S., holding the fourth-highest rate of execution per capita during that time. When Chelsea Richardson ’18 began her internship search, she knew she wanted to help work against this. With funding from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, she is spending her summer in Virginia trying to help save lives as an investigative intern at the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office (CDO).
During her nine-week internship, Richardson is conducting work both in and out of the office. The CDO, one of the state’s four offices that appoints public defenders to people on trial who can’t afford attorneys, hired Richardson as an investigative intern. She aids the mitigation process by compiling records pertaining to clients, and goes on trips to find and interview witnesses. Her work has taken her to multiple mid-Atlantic states to help build cases on behalf of the office’s four clients that they usually defend at any one time.
“We’re working to save lives,” said Richardson, a political science major and sociology minor. “Often our clients are some of the most dehumanized, despised, and demonized people in the country, so much so that people think it’s justice to kill them. “
In the process of a murder case, the CDO most commonly tries to reach a plea agreement that results in a life sentence without parole. If the case goes to trial, the question is rarely whether or not the defendant is guilty, but why they committed the crime and why they deserve to live. That’s where Richardson comes in. By compiling key information and summarizing records related to health, employment, education, and more, she helps attorneys build an extensive social history of clients.
“A capital jury can choose to spare the accused’s life for any reason they see fit, even just mercy,” said Richardson. “There’s a pretty wide open door for evidence when it comes to presenting mitigation evidence, since there are higher stakes in a capital case.”
Richardson’s current position continues her string of criminal-justice jobs. Last summer, she interned with Centurion Ministries, which helps prove the innocence of wrongly convicted inmates. Over winter break, she participated in an externship with Sam Angell ’82, assistant capital defender at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. This spring, she began tutoring with the Petey Greene Program, in which several Haverford students provide one-on-one tutoring in local correctional institutions.
Richardson’s job this summer has high stakes. With lives on the line, her work in and out of the office aims to foment grace and empathy in the courtroom.
“The main goal of mitigation work is to humanize our clients,” she said. “To find bits and pieces of their lives that show a jury that this, too, is a human, and every human life has value.”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.