There’s a steadfast cheeriness to Christina Swarns as she talks rapid fire about the contours of her day. There are the rigors of her end-to-end Manhattan commute, how rarely she dresses like a grown-up and the usual challenges of the professional working mom.
But that changes when the conversation turns to the role of race in the criminal justice system. Then the Howard University grad becomes all authority and passion. She cites case law, death-penalty statistics and the history of Southern lynchings.She talks without pause, punctuating her words with hand gestures, even as her favorite portobello sandwich goes untouched in front of her.
As director of the criminal justice unit at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Swarns, 43, is one of the most prominent capital-defense lawyers in the country — the rare black woman in a community whose public face is most often white and male. Over the course of her career, she’s gotten seven convicted murderers off death row; one was exonerated, three had their convictions overturned and three had their death sentences vacated. But it is her most recent victory that is by far the most high-profile.