Where They’re Headed: Chelsea Richardson ’18

The political science major has channeled her passion for minority advocacy into a career as a capital defender.

Chelsea Richardson ’18 has always made social justice her top priority. Over the course of her four years at Haverford, she was at the forefront of initiatives to establish a housing cooperative for LGBTQ students, supplement Customs training with workshops on gender and sexuality, and reduce the stigma so often associated with mental and physical disability. And those are just her on-campus efforts.

“Throughout 2017, I volunteered as a tutor with the Petey Greene Program, assisting 14- through 18-year-old boys incarcerated at a juvenile correctional institution with their high school requirements,” Richardson says. “In the summer of 2016, I interned as a volunteer case-worker with Centurion Ministries, the first organization in the country dedicating to freeing innocent people from prison. The next summer, I was an intern for the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office, where I became much more invested in efforts to abolish the death penalty and re-imagine non-punitive forms of justice.”

With such an extensive history of advocacy for the disenfranchised, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Richardson is pursuing a career in defense law. Less than a month after graduation, the political science major and sociology minor drove back to Virginia, where she’d been offered a full-time position at the Capital Defender Office. There, as a mitigation specialist and investigator, her personal agenda intersects with her job description.

“In order to make activism efforts truly inclusive, [it is necessary to] include those who are often cast off as irredeemable or demonized as ‘criminals,'” she says. “So in the past couple of years, I’ve spent more and more time working to combine my organizing around issues of identity with organizing efforts against mass incarceration and the death penalty. [Now,] I hope to improve my investigative skills and learn best practices in mitigation so I can more effectively advocate for people facing severe punishments and contribute to an overarching movement for abolition of the death penalty.”

She’s only been on the job for a few weeks, but Richardson has already seen firsthand how “the death penalty disproportionately targets people of color, people living in poverty, and people with mental illnesses.” And she’s determined to use all the professional tools at her disposal to counter its impact.

“Currently, I am doing a lot of trial preparation, which includes selecting, organizing, and preparing trial exhibits and preparing other organizational tools like witness folders,” she says. “Normally, I would be conducting investigations, so I would be traveling to interview mitigation witnesses and collecting and reviewing records pertaining to our clients.”

It’s exhaustive work—Richardson describes it as “interviewing every person our client has ever had contact with and finding every document pertaining to them ever produced”—but, in her mind, well worth it.

“[That is] the powerful tool of mitigation investigation: investigating a client’s life history to emphasize their inherent worth and humanity as a countervailing force against the dehumanizing narratives of the criminal legal system,” she says. “A career in this field allows me to contribute the most I can to efforts against mass incarceration and punitive justice.”

“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.

Photo: In the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office, mitigation specialist and investigator Chelsea Richardson ’18 researches client histories on her computer. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Richardson ’18.