Death Penalty

NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Christina Swarns Talks Race and Gender in Capital Defense Work

Fresh from her most high-profile victory to date—the case that pulled Mumia Abu-Jamal off death row—Christina Swarns sat down with the Washington Post to discuss her life’s work and being one of the few black women doing capital-defense cases.

Swarns, who is director of the criminal justice unit at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, used to be one of just a handful of black capital-defense lawyers at national training conferences. There’d only be white faces onstage and in the audience. Now, she says there are some 20 lawyers of color, including black, Hispanic and Asian practitioners at these functions. It’s still not enough, she tells the Post.

Diversifying the capital defense bar can’t come soon enough. David Dow, who runs a capital-punishment clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, says there’s a broad range of experiences useful in capital-defense work, “and race and gender are parts of it.”

Dow told the Post that when he worked with Swarns on a case seven years ago, it was his first time working with a black female attorney in 25 years of capital-defense work. He describes Swarns as “the model for a lawyer who, when she’s representing somebody, at the end of that process, there’s not going to be a drop of gas left in that tank. There aren’t going to be any fumes left because she will have burned every bit of it representing her client.”

Terrica Redfield Ganzy, who represents death-row inmates in Georgia and Alabama, looks to Swarns as a role model. Ganzy said she was shocked that there were so few black lawyers working in capital defense, but acknowledges that the jobs don’t pay well.

Headline updated Feb. 3 to correctly reference the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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