Chelsea Botsch, an All-America softball pitcher and 2015 graduate of Wilmington University, went on to earn a degree from the West Virginia University College of Law in 2019. While at WVU, Botsch worked with the Innocence Project, an initiative to free those in U.S. prisons who have been wrongly convicted.
For many years, the United States has been the world leader in incarceration. As of 2018, some 2.2 million people were in the nation’s prisons and jails. That computes to 655 prisoners per 100,000 people. El Salvador is second, at 615 per 100,000, Russia a distant fourth, at 383.
While the U.S. prison population increased by 500% over the last 40 years due largely to changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, many of those incarcerated were wrongly convicted. Various studies put the number at between 2.3% and 5%, which means as many as 110,000 prisoners are innocent of the charges against them.
Since 1992, it has been the mission of the Innocence Project to right those wrongs. The Project was founded at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who gained national attention as part of O. J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” of lawyers. The Project seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted largely through DNA testing and reforms in the criminal justice system. As of November 2019, those efforts had produced 189 successful DNA-based exonerations.
The Innocence Project benefits from the pro bono work of law schools and law firms throughout the United States. The cases they take on give aspiring lawyers valuable real-world experience in navigating the intricacies of the legal system. The work is particularly satisfying for those budding attorneys when it results in exoneration of someone facing a life sentence.
That was Botsch’s experience while at WVU. In her final year there, she worked on the case of Charles Jordan Lively, a 42-year-old man who had spent 14 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree arson in the 2005 death of Dr. Ebb K. “Doc” Whitley at his home in Iaeger, West Virginia.
The West Virginia Innocence Project took on Lively’s case in 2017. Their work eventually led to a successful appeal that was based on reports from state-retained fire experts who found that the fire in Whitley’s home was not arson. What’s more, the case’s former prosecutor stated that he believed Lively was wrongfully convicted. As a result, Lively was released on Sept. 24, 2020.
Botsch recalls her work on the appeal in 2018 and into 2019: “You’re broken down into teams with an instructor guiding each team,” she says. “There were seven or eight of us on the team and we had a law firm help pro bono. We worked on that case and two others we had inherited. You look through trial records and transcripts, the evidence used, and review the applicant’s claims. When I started on the case I was hoping Charles would get out soon, but it took another year after I left. But the science behind the fire was proved to be faulty, and then the prosecuting attorney signed an affidavit saying he believed Charles was innocent.”
While the Lively case was a successful effort by WVIP, victories are never easy to come by, Botsch says. “Sometimes, your work is not quite enough. Unlike on television or movies, it’s a long process and it can be heart-breaking. A lot of cases span years and a couple of classes (at the law school).”
While working on the Lively appeal, she visited the West Virginia prison where he was incarcerated — Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Moundsville. She also spoke to Lively’s mother.
“You get to know the people and the family, and they call often to check on their case and just kind of to talk to someone,” Botsch says. “These are people who are going to be in there for life. You know it’s going to be a long shot because the law’s so tricky. It’s very emotional when they do get out.”
“Chelsea’s work during her third year of law school in the innocence clinic was top-notch,” says WVIP Program Director Melissa Giggenbach. “She worked on several high-profile innocence cases and, while the clients weren’t released before she graduated, her work was crucial in securing their eventual release.”
Botsch calls the experience “eye-opening.”
These are people who are going to be in there for life. You know it’s going to be a long shot because the law’s so tricky. It’s very emotional when they do get out.” —Chelsea Botsch
“The people that apply to be represented have been put through a system that didn’t work for them,” she says. “There are many factors that can lead to a wrongful conviction, whether it’s something like science, eyewitness misidentification, or a false confession, and the Innocence Project shows you how devastating such inaccurate evidence can be.”
Botsch’s three years in Morgantown followed a successful four years in the classroom and on the softball field at WilmU, where she majored in Psychology, with a minor in Political Science. She accepted a softball scholarship to the University after a stellar career at Smyrna (Delaware) High School, where she was named first team All-State once and second team three times.
She says she chose WilmU because it enabled her to play in a competitive conference while staying close to her family in Smyrna.
She pitched in 21 games as a true freshman, making 15 starts. She continued to pitch throughout her four years as a Wildcat and also started games at second base, third base, and as the designated player. In her senior year, she received Daktronics All-America honorable mention as well as first team NFCA (National Fastpitch Coaches Association) All-East Region and first team Daktronics All-East Region, among other honors. She also made the Dean’s List and Academic All-Conference team.
“My experience at WilmU was fun and challenging and brought the best out of me as an athlete,” she says. “The block classes were helpful to work with the softball schedule and the school is very helpful with anything you might need. As a team, we continued to accomplish different goals each year and tried to go farther in the post-season than any year before.”
The record shows that she and her teammates were successful in reaching that goal. After going 0-2 in the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference tournament in 2012, the team improved to 2-2 in 2013 and in 2014 won the tourney for the first time in team history with a 4-0 record. That landed them in the NCAA East Regional Tournament, where they were 1-2. In Botsch’s senior year, 2015, they went 2-2 again and qualified for the NCAA Regional Tournament, where they won one and lost two. Botsch pitched all 16 innings of a tough 2-1 loss to Adelphi in the opening round.
After law school, Botsch scored a clerkship with Judge Jeffrey J. Clark in Kent County Superior Court before being hired last October by McCarter & English LLP, a Wilmington law firm. While the firm specializes in civil litigation defense, it also does extensive pro bono work, and is partnering with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Botsch is participating in that work, as well as some other pro bono initiatives.
She has found a welcoming atmosphere at McCarter & English. “I was nervous coming into it,” she says, “but everyone has been so helpful in explaining processes and making me feel comfortable. That’s especially important while working remotely. It’s been great, and I have really enjoyed the work and the people.”