News 09.08.20

The Innocence Project’s New Executive Director Christina Swarns Is Ready to Dismantle the System That Devalues Black Life

Christina shared her favorite books, the role the organization should have in the movement for Black lives, and more.

By Alicia Maule

Christina Swarns, Innocence Project's new executive director visiting the office in September 2020. She's holding up one of her favorite books, "Devil in the Grove," by Gilbert King. (Image: Sameer Abdel-Khalek/Innocence Project)

Today, we are eager to welcome Christina Swarns as she jumps into her new role as the executive director of the Innocence Project following a phenomenal 27-year career in criminal and capital defense.

Christina Swarns represented Nicholas Yarris, the first person in Pennslyvania to be exonerated from death row by DNA. Image: Innocence Project.

Swarns began her career as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in her hometown of New York City after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Since then, she has become a leading capital defense attorney who has litigated several notable cases, including that of Nicholas Yarris, the first person exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row by DNA.

While serving as the litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Swarns represented Duane Buck, a Black man who was sentenced to death in Texas based on explicitly racist evidence. In 2016, Swarns served as lead counsel for Buck, arguing Buck v. Davis in the United States Supreme Court. The Court’s 6-2 ruling in Buck’s favor was monumental not only because it vacated his sentence, but also because it explicitly condemned racial bias in the administration of criminal justice. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said, “Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.”

 

Swarns was the only Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court that term. She’s one of the very few Black women who has ever argued before the high court. 

When Swarns is not fiercely litigating for people on death row or running the nation’s leading defense organizations, she is a proud single mother and has two cats, Walter and Charlie, and a dog Maya Rose. She and her daughter are currently enjoying binge watching “The X-Files.” 

Swarns has joined the Innocence Project team on International Literacy Day — so we asked her which five books she thinks everyone should read, what she thinks the Innocence Project’s role in the movement for Black lives is, and where she sees the future of the organization. 

Read the interview below. 

Why do you do criminal justice work?

There is no meaningful space between me and the people I represent. I find it absolutely intolerable that innocent people are convicted of crimes and spending years in prison. If an innocent person can be in prison for, say, 35 years, and I am an innocent person, that means I can spend that much time in prison, too. There is no way that I can stand by and allow the system to operate this way.

Innocence Project executive director Christina Swarns speaking to the press on the steps of the Supreme Court after the court ruled in favor of her client Duane Buck in 2016. (Image: Courtesy of Christina Swarns)

    

If you could change one aspect of the legal system, what would it be?

Overrule McCleskey vs. Kemp, which held that statistical evidence of racial disparity does not support a constitutional basis for relief. We have a system that is characterized by racial disproportionality from arrest to bail to sentencing. A disproportionate number of those that are wrongly convicted are Black and/or Latinx. There needs to be a meaningful way to address these kinds of arbitrary racial disparities. We have an obligation to correct that.

How do you see the Innocence Project’s role in the movement for Black lives?

The Innocence Project’s pioneering use of DNA in criminal defense litigation exposed the unreliability of laws and theories and ideas that were previously deemed foundational, like eyewitness misidentification and false confessions. The Innocence Project not only committed itself to using science to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, but also to changing the laws and policies that contributed to those profound injustices. Over the years, the Innocence Project’s work has revealed another uncomfortable truth: a disproportionate number of the 375 DNA exonerations since 1989 are Black and Latinx. That data, along with the other evidence of racial bias and disproportionality in the criminal legal system, demands similar analysis and reform. If race is contributing to wrongful conviction, we need to figure out when, where and how it is propelling error and we need to confront, challenge, address, and correct it. In this way, the work of the Innocence Project helps to dismantle a system that devalues Black life, which is the core of the movement for Black lives. 

What is one thing about the Innocence Project’s work people should know?

Christina Swarns featured in the August 2012 issue of ABA Journal. (Image: Courtesy of Christina Swarns)

The Innocence Project is fearless. We simply will not accept a system that allows innocent people to be convicted of crimes. Period.

How do you hope to inspire the next generation of lawyers and advocates fighting for criminal justice reform?

I can’t say what inspires other people, but what I can say is that I am committed to speaking truth to power. I have an unwavering commitment to speaking out even when it’s hard, even when it is scary, and even when it shakes foundations. The only way that we are going to achieve meaningful criminal justice reform is by honestly calling out the injustices we see. 

What does the future of the Innocence Project look like?

It’s going to stay ahead of the time, be creative, and cutting edge in pushing the reforms that are necessary to ensure that no more innocent people are wrongfully convicted. We will do this through education, organizing, policy advocacy, and social media. We will find, meet, and engage with the public and the relevant decision makers where they are. 

What has kept you sane during the COVID-19 lockdown?

My daughter. I’ve also enjoyed backyard dinners and Zoom get-togethers with my friends. It’s forced us to be intentional about our relationships. We also have standing (outdoor/socially-distant) dinners, we do virtual game nights, I do yoga, and we are watching “The X-Files.”

Christina Swarns hugging her daughter on the steps of the Supreme Court after winning Buck vs. Davis in 2016. (Image: Courtesy of Christina Swarns)

Today is International Literacy Day, what are five books everyone should read?

  1. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, is a must-read about Thurgood Marshall’s defense of four innocent Black teenagers who were tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman in Florida in 1949. It’s a microcosm of the way racial bias cripples the justice system.
  2. Until We Reckon, by Danielle Sered, is an important and fascinating read because it focuses on how draconian sentences often fail to address the needs of survivors of violent crime.
  3. The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, is extraordinary, beautiful, and powerful and discusses the racial terror that propelled the Great Migration from the Amerand has had a lasting impact through today.
  4. Bang Bang Club, by Greg Marinovich and Jaoa Silva, follows a photojournalist in South Africa during the fall of Apartheid and documents the impact of bearing witness to profound injustice and trauma. It resonated with me as someone on the front lines of fighting injustice in the US. 
  5. The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste, is about the beautiful and painful role women had in Ethiopia’s fight for liberation from Italy. 

Help us welcome Swarns to the team.

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  1. ERIC VIELJEUX says:

    Dear Ms Swarns,
    I am so impressed and admirative of your passion and dedication to seek true justice.
    This is very admirable.
    I wish you much success in your new endeavors…mission.
    Regards,
    Eric Vieljeux.

  2. Marie LaPonsie says:

    Thank you Christina!! Welcome to the team, together..we will make change! ❤️

Thanks for your comment

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