Our Mission: Advancing Real Change, Inc., promotes justice by ensuring that the life histories of people charged with crimes are at the forefront of their cases.Donate Now
Advancing Real Change, Inc. envisions a criminal legal system that is rooted in dignity, empathy, and equity.
We promote a more just and humane criminal legal system by unearthing the life histories of people facing extreme sentences, such as the death penalty, life without the opportunity for parole, and decades-long prison sentences. This work, called mitigation investigation, fosters understanding for our clients and leads to shorter and more equitable sentences that account for our clients’ full humanity. Founded in 2014, Advancing Real Change, Inc., is a leader in the field of mitigation investigation, providing direct services to indigent clients as members of criminal defense teams, offering training and education to defenders across the nation, and applying the values and practices of mitigation investigation to all areas of the criminal legal system.
Our work is grounded in the values of human dignity, truth, and empathy. In a system designed to dehumanize those accused of crimes, we fight for the recognition of our clients’ humanity. False narratives about crime and those who may commit harm drive our most excessive sentences: that some crimes render people unworthy of mercy; that some individuals cannot change or grow; that everyone chooses the life they have. We counter these and other inaccurate and fear-based accounts with true, nuanced narratives that demonstrate our clients’ full personhood and help decision-makers see the complete picture of their lives.
We take our duty to provide accurate and complete mitigation information seriously, following the professional standards in the American Bar Association’s Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases, the Supplementary Guidelines for Mitigation Function of Defense Team in Capital Cases, and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth Guidelines for the Representation of Child Clients.
Elizabeth Vartkessian has been investigating the life histories of those facing the most severe penalties possible in the United States since 2004. She started working as a mitigation specialist in Houston, Texas at a time when it was the epicenter of capital punishment. There she learned and developed skills aimed at helping decision-makers have a full picture of her clients.
After starting a successful private practice and obtaining her Ph.D. in Law from the University of Oxford, Dr. Vartkessian and several colleagues created Advancing Real Change, Inc. (ARC, Inc.) a national non-profit located in Baltimore, MD dedicated to conducting high-quality life history investigations in criminal cases. As the founding Executive Director, Dr. Vartkessian is committed to having the history of an accused at the forefront of their criminal case. She has worked as a mitigation specialist with defense teams in trial and post-conviction cases in state and federal jurisdictions and is an international expert on the collection and effective presentation of mitigating evidence, as well as the standard of care required by the defense in death penalty and juvenile cases.
Dr. Vartkessian’s approach to investigating and presenting evidence is informed by research. She is currently a Research Fellow at the University at Albany in the School of Criminal Justice where she is a researcher with the Capital Jury Project (CJP). The CJP is an ongoing research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation that seeks to understand how capital jurors make their sentencing decisions and whether those decisions are made in keeping with the law. The results of her research were widely cited by the American Bar Association’s review of the Texas capital sentencing system. Her publications, which include articles in law reviews, peer review journals, and opinion pieces focus on receptivity to mitigating evidence.
In addition to having received her Ph.D. in Law from the University of Oxford, Dr. Vartkessian also holds a M.S. in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford and B.A.s in Philosophy and Political Science from the George Washington University where she was a Presidential Scholar. In 2015 she was awarded the J. M. K. Innovation Prize for her efforts to bring mitigation to all areas of the criminal justice process. In 2018, the City Council of Baltimore passed a resolution praising Dr. Vartkessian’s efforts to bring human dignity into the justice system.
Director of Operations
Erin Fiaschetti has worked with nonprofit organizations and government agencies for more than a decade. Her experience includes the fields of domestic violence, local legislation, community development, and poverty alleviation. Erin received her Master of Social Work from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where she studied Management and Community Organizing, and her B.A. in English and Sociology from Vanderbilt University.
Co-Director of Mitigation Casework
Katherine Ashton provides direct supervision to staff in addition to working on behalf of ARC’s capital and juvenile clients. Katherine has worked on capital cases in both federal and state courts, juvenile resentencing cases, and sentencing modifications for those convicted of crimes as children. Katherine joined ARC, Inc. with a background in community-based advocacy and direct service to individuals experiencing homelessness, and became involved with mitigation work during an internship with the University of Texas School of Law’s Capital Punishment Clinic. She joined ARC, Inc. after receiving her Master of Science in Social Work degree (MSSW) from the University of Texas at Austin and her Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Katherine is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
Director of Training and Education
Over the last 15 years, Mary has worked with youth-centered institutions and nonprofit organizations. Her service has included advocating for students with disabilities and educating adjudicated youth in Maryland. In her previous role with ARC, Inc., she has been the Development Manager. Mary has earned a Master of Nonprofit Management from Notre Dame of Maryland University where she studied Grant Writing and Professional Writing. In addition, she has received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Communication from Eureka College.
Director of Development and Communications
Jeremy has nearly twenty years experience in nonprofit administration and communications. Early in his career, he learned about the importance of mitigation investigation and putting clients’ stories at the forefront of their cases as the office manager for the Gulf Region Advocacy Center in Houston, Texas. Since then, he obtained his MFA in creative nonfiction from the New School and has served as managing editor for Trinity Wall Street, a church with an active social justice ministry that gives over one million in grants a year. Most recently, he was the Senior Writer for the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins, where he helped launch the new center and led projects ranging from developing a new website, coordinating speaking events and panels, and email and social media campaigns. He served as a founding member and Vice President of the Board of Directors for Advancing Real Change, Inc. before joining the team as Director of Development and Communications.
Co-Director of Mitigation Casework
For over twenty years, Amy has fought for clients in criminal and capital cases as an attorney, mitigation specialist, and investigator. She has worked at the trial, habeas, and appellate stages. She started her career as an attorney with the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta, Georgia, providing highly effective, holistic representation to clients through the attorney-social worker team model. She was a member of the founding staff of the Georgia Capital Defender in 2005, and worked at the Georgia Appellate Practice and Educational Resource Center.
Amy has trained in restorative justice practices, including Defense-Initiated Victim Outreach (DIVO), and has participated in victim-offender mediations. Amy worked with the Capital Appellate Project in San Francisco and taught both law school and high school students in the Bay Area. She consults with capital trial teams around the country on mitigation investigation and development, and has worked as a mitigation specialist on non-capital cases. Amy earned her JD and MSW at Boston College. She is a member of the Georgia Bar.
Stacey has over thirty years in the accounting field working for a broad range of organizations. She is a dedicated professional in helping to maximize cash flow and long term growth through effective accounting systems and procedures. She has extensive knowledge in analysis, organization, troubleshooting, research, training, monitoring, and improvement of accounting procedures. Stacey received her AA degree from Baltimore City Community College.
Kait desires to bring trauma-informed and anti-racist advocacy to those who are within the carceral legal system. Prior to joining ARC Inc., Kait worked in mitigation on capital cases in Texas. She carries with her years of experience working with refugee and immigrant communities and in various roles within the child-welfare system. She is passionate about bridging the gap between micro and macro worlds with her knowledge of neurodevelopment, trauma, and policy. Kait is a proud first-generation college grad with her Master’s of Science in Social Work from The University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. in psychology from Dallas Baptist University.
Life History Investigator
Maddie joined ARC, Inc. with the desire to advocate for individuals charged with or convicted of capital or juvenile crimes in state and federal courts. Prior to joining ARC, Inc., Maddie worked in mitigation on cases out of the Public Defender’s Office in Florida. Previously, Maddie worked in child welfare, providing in-home behavioral care to families, and in ministry providing emergency housing to impoverished individuals and families in rural Appalachia. Maddie holds a B.S. in Psychology and earned her M.S.W. from Florida State University.
Jirah brings a lifelong passion for empowerment and advocacy to her position at ARC, along with her breadth of experience in business management, development, and human resources for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. After spending her youth volunteering in a performing arts program dedicated to advocacy and inspiration, she had the opportunity to work with and shape an educational and mentoring program from the ground up. She has since directly managed and supported several companies in various industries, with an emphasis in human capital concerns.
Cate joined ARC, Inc with the knowledge that the carceral legal system is one of the greatest sources of civil rights abuses and the desire to help make change through direct client harm reduction. She has experience with mitigation and factual investigation through prior public defense work on both the state and federal level. Cate is also experienced in mental health investigations through her work for those involuntarily committed to state and regional hospitals throughout Maryland.
Life History Investigator
Judith joined ARC, Inc. to support individuals charged with or convicted of capital crimes in federal and state courts. She has a background in sociocultural anthropology, global health, community-based harm reduction, and human rights advocacy. Judith received her M.A. in Medical Anthropology and Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from Harvard University and her B.A. in Anthropology and Russian/East European Studies from Tufts University. Judith speaks fluent Russian and conversational French.
Grace joined ARC, Inc. with the desire to be a part of creating systemic change in the criminal legal system. She brings experience working in a case management capacity with clients throughout criminal, housing, and family cases and in non-capital mitigation work in Chicago. She holds a Master of Social Work, Bachelor of Social Work, and Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and Criminology from Loyola University Chicago.
Kati joined ARC, Inc. with a passion for advocacy and change within the criminal justice system. She has experience working in child welfare, including case management, adoption, and adoption recruitment. Kati completed her MSW at Florida State University and has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Criminal Justice from the University of West Florida.
Steve served for over 25 years as the Deputy Chief of the Defender Services Office (DSO) within the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Soon after joining the DSO in 1988, he assumed primary responsibility for federal court death penalty representation matters, including the development, funding, and oversight of 17 Death Penalty Resource Centers. Following their defunding in 1996, Steve conceived of and was responsible for establishing Capital Habeas Units in 17 traditional federal defender offices. During the last half of his tenure with the DSO, Steve also served as the Chief of its Program Budget Division, managing the budget and grant process for the nation’s federal public and community defender organizations and overseeing the formulation of the annual Defender Services appropriation request. Steve began his career at The Legal Aid Society in New York City.
Kristina Leslie is a Capital Resource Counsel (CRC) where she directly represents persons charged in federal capital cases around the country, and provides advice and training to trial teams. Prior to joining the CRC Project, she was an Assistant Federal Public Defender for the District of Maryland and represented clients at all stages of proceedings in federal district court. Prior to joining the Federal Public Defender in 2018, Ms. Leslie served as an assistant capital defender in Northern Virginia, which exclusively represented individuals charged with capital murder at the trial level. She began her career as a state public defender in Baltimore City.
Nashville-based mitigation specialist and criminal defense investigator Amber Kaset started her career at the Nashville Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office, where she spent seven years serving the city’s poorest defendants, including those in the Hispanic community through her fluency in Spanish. She left in 2010 to start a private firm focused on fact investigation and mitigation for indigent clients throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. Her team has investigated hundreds of high-level state and federal cases, and has worked on capital cases from California to Maryland. Amber graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and also studied at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
Nicole is a San Francisco native and has worked in Silicon Valley’s Learning and Development field for 15 years, previously at Genentech and most recently, Facebook. An entrepreneur at heart, she founded hiip, a one for one fanny pack company where a kit of basic necessities is hand-delivered to a person in need on the street for every bag sold. hiip encourages community involvement by inviting locals to join in on handouts with organizations like the Salvation Army with a goal to see and connect the marginalized. When not actively connecting with local neighbors through her homemade food delivery ministry, Meet the Street, Nicole enjoys traveling and discovering all the food around San Francisco. She holds a degree in Journalism from Pepperdine University.
Since 1993, Mr. Marcus has represented death-sentenced clients at every level of state and federal habeas corpus proceedings, first with the Texas Resource Center and then with the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit capital defense project he helped found in 1995. Mr. Marcus served as the Executive Director of Texas Defender Service from 1997 until stepping down in the summer of 2006 to join the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. In addition to co-directing the Capital Punishment Clinic, Mr. Marcus trains and supports capital habeas counsel in Texas cases and lectures in capital defense seminars across the nation.
Adrián de la Rosa is a capital investigator and mitigation specialist with experience working in Texas at both the federal and state habeas levels. Prior to his work in the capital community, he led the community education efforts at the Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP), a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that works to improve the fairness of Texas’s criminal courts to ensure that all Texans have access to justice. Adrián also has worked as an adjunct associate professor in the Sociology Department at Austin Community College and previously served on the board of the Workers Defense Project (Proyecto Defensa Laboral), a membership-based organization that empowers low-income workers to achieve fair employment through education, direct services, organizing and strategic partnerships. He currently serves on the Commission on Immigrant Affairs for the City of Austin where he focuses on issues of common concern to immigrants and immigrant communities. Adrián is a proud native West Texan, fluent Spanish-speaker, and actively volunteers with several nonprofits in the Austin community, while also mentoring Latinx and other underserved community college students.
Richard Jasper is a criminal defense attorney with 30 years experience in New York City specializing in federal criminal defense and federal capital litigation. Since 1994, Richard has represented defendants in federal capital cases. He has served as a member of the faculty at the Bryan R. Shechmeister Death Penalty College, Santa Clara University School of Law.
Lauren Mims is an assistant Professor of educational psychology at Ball State University. Lauren received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology: Applied Developmental Science at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. Broadly, Lauren’s work focuses on promoting the wellbeing and development of Black students, with a particular focus on Black girls. Lauren formerly served as the Assistant Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans during the Obama Administration, where she focused her efforts on student programming, supporting federal interagency relationships, the development of research-based publications and handbooks for students, managing the Initiative social media accounts, and engaging with stakeholders through multi-media platforms. She was a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Department of Education Policy Committee, the U.S. Department of Education Socioeconomic Diversity Working Group, as well as a member of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Working Group.
Scott Sundby holds the Robert C. Josefsberg Chair in Criminal Advocacy at the University of Miami School of Law. Much of his research has been conducted as part of the Capital Jury Project, a study funded by the National Science Foundation that is designed to understand how juries decide whether or not to impose the death penalty. As part of the Project, he oversaw the interviewing of a large number of jurors who actually served on capital juries, half of which returned death sentences and half of which opted for life sentences. His articles based on the Project have examined a variety of aspects of the death-penalty decision, while his book, A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty, focuses on the human side of the decision by listening to how different jurors from the same case describe their jury’s decision to impose a death sentence; the book was named a Finalist for the American Bar Association’s best law book of the year.
Anupama Vishwamitra is currently taking a professional sabbatical and encourages other practitioners to consider it along their career path. Anu has dedicated 17 years to defending capital trial-level cases throughout the state of Georgia. She felt honored to attend and later present at various well-respected conferences; consulted with teams nationwide; trained in and promoted defense-initiated victim outreach; taught social work classes at Georgia State University and helped mentor and supervise countless mitigation investigators and students during those years. Anu was the inaugural recipient of ARC, Inc.’s annual Muhammad-White Award, acknowledging a mitigation specialist whose body of work has profoundly advanced the field of mitigation.
Chris has been Senior Pro Bono Counsel at the global law firm Reed Smith LLP since 2004. In that capacity, on a full-time basis Chris manages the pro bono work of Reed Smith’s 1800 lawyers, most of whom are in the United States. For 25 years before becoming Reed Smith’s Senior Pro Bono Counsel, Chris was a litigation partner at the firm. Chris graduated from Princeton University and Michigan Law School. Prior to law practice he served on active duty as an Army Intelligence officer, including one year in Vietnam.
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