Against all odds, Christina Swarns L’93 successfully defended seven death row inmates while at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
P H OTO : COTY TARR
for the organization. Under her leadership, the organization continued its fight against restrictive voting laws and for school desegregation plans; it challenged discriminatory mortgage foreclosures in Detroit and police misconduct in New York. “What she has been able to do … is to work both sides,” ensuring fair trials for criminal defendants while expanding minority citizens’ civil liberties and civil rights, says David Rudovsky, senior fellow at Penn Law. “That is very important. They are opposite sides of the same coin.” Her own focus on the death penalty continued a legacy that dates to the founding of LDF in the 1940s, when the group charted a path towards abolition in the tradition of its work challenging public school segregation. Indeed, even before Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall was representing poor black men accused of rape and murder in the Deep South. LDF became a hub for death penalty defense lawyers, and its efforts coalesced in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 decision abolishing the death penalty, and have continued since the court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 with, among other things, a widely anticipated annual conference to share legal briefs and strategies and other information.
Swarns represented Duane Buck, who was spared execution when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his case had been marred by racial stereotypes.
“The things that corrupt the death penalty corrupt it absolutely,” Swarns says, citing “astonishingly bad” lawyers, politically driven prosecutors, and the tortures of lethal injection. “The truth of the matter is, the death penalty operates consistently,” she says. “It is consistently applied against the most troubled people in our society.” Today, public support for the death penalty is at a 30-year low. Executions are way down and clustered in a handful of jurisdictions. Enthusiasm for the death penalty has been dampened in part by cases of people walking off death row conclusively innocent. Since 1973, more than 155 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based, nonprofit research organization. The death penalty remains an important tool of justice for a few jurisdictions, who see it as apt punishment for unspeakable crimes where guilt is unquestioned. At the same time, even the most factually troubling cases can raise profound issues of law and morality. “Christina believed that racial discrimination in the criminal justice system often surfaced most clearly in those cases where innocence may not have been a
P H OTO: TEXAS D EPARTMEN T OF C RIMIN AL J U STIC E