When Christina Swarns L’93 was in college, her mother insisted that she participate in “substantive volunteer work” and arranged for her to volunteer at the District Attorney’s office. Swarns hated it and assumed that she hated criminal law, too.
Fast forward through her subsequent years in Law School, as a Federal Defender, and a Director of Criminal Justice Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and it becomes clear that this was not exactly true. What Swarns hated was how unfair the law could be – which is perhaps why she has dedicated her entire career to reforming it.
Now, as the newest Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Swarns will continue this work from a fresh perspective.
“Each transition was to have a broader impact on the work,” Swarns said, reflecting on how her career trajectory led her to her current position. “At the beginning and then end of the day, the Innocence Project is the most influential criminal justice reform organization in the world. It was ridiculous not to jump at the opportunity.”
The Innocence Project is a national non-profit focused on attaining exoneration for innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted. Founded in 1992 at Cardozo Law School, the Innocence Project is comprised of lawyers, policy advocates, social workers, researchers and others who fight wrongful convictions from a number of strategic, interconnected avenues. The Innocence Project is the headquarters of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of 69 organizations across the world dedicated to exonerating the innocent and promoting systemic reform.
From a legal standpoint, the Innocence Project works to exonerate innocent clients who have been wrongfully-convicted and improve case law through strategic impact litigation. Social workers at the organization provide support for exonerees as they rebuild their lives post-release. Moreover, the organization also operates at the legislative level, advocating for policy reforms that prevent wrongful conviction and conducting research to support those policies.
In describing how the Innocence Project promulgates change through the criminal justice system, Swarns repeatedly returned to a metaphor of “following the breadcrumbs.” Eyewitness identification and confessions, for example, were historically believed to be inviolate pieces of evidence in criminal trials – until the Innocence Project found that they were not.
“The story is still being told,” Swarns said. “We’re still following the breadcrumb trail that the exoneration cases tell. That’s our obligation. That’s the duty and power of the Innocence Project. We follow the trail, and we have to bring the country, the community, and the world with us. We aren’t making this up. All we can do is tell you, from the experience of all these exonerations, that these are the things that led truly innocent people to be convicted. And if we accept that proposition, then we have to fix it.”
The Innocence Project’s work can involve roller coasters of emotions.
During Swarns’ first week as Executive Director, Richard Dubois Zoomed into an Innocent Project meeting to share his experience after being exonerated after spending 37 years in a Florida prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Swarns was struck by both the magnitude and the details of his story: in his first few days out in the world, Dubois said he could not believe how much stuff CVS stocks these days.
“These little things always stand out when I hear these stories,” Swarns said. “And then, of course, the story gets complicated.”
In Florida, where Dubois was convicted, a person can be disqualified from receiving compensation for wrongful conviction if they have unrelated felony convictions on their record. Shortly before Dubois was convicted and sent to jail for the crimes he did not commit, he committed two minor property crimes when he was 17 years old – he entered an unlocked vacant home and was found to be in possession of a stolen bicycle. Under Florida’s “clean hands” provision, these non-violent felony convictions render DuBois ineligible for any government compensation for the 37 years he wrongfully spent in jail.
Stories like this are why Swarns admits that the work can be infuriating. But organizing a policy team to advocate for the law’s reform is exciting as well as a poignant reminder of why the Innocence Project exists.
“The organization has used the story of those cases in a really powerful way to really fundamentally reform the system,” Swarns said.
Swarns postulated that a great strength of the Innocence Project is its broad appeal; across the ideological spectrum, a central point that people can agree on is that a fair criminal justice system should not include the conviction of innocent people.
“One of the many things that makes the Innocent Project unique is that it really attracts all comers. It brings everybody to the table regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum and regardless of where you fall on criminal justice issues. Everyone agrees that nobody who is innocent should be in jail. It’s just not a debatable position,” she said.
The Law School regularly highlights the many accomplishments of our esteemed alumni in the Penn Law Journal. More information about events that feature alumni can be found on the Penn Law Alumni webpage.