At Essence, Chistina Swarns L’93, Executive Director of the Innocence Project, recently discussed the problem of wrongful convictions and how she plans to expand the focus of the organization, one year into her position.
Christina Swarns is a leading capital defense attorney, a nationally recognized criminal legal reform expert and the first Black woman executive director of the Innocence Project — a nonprofit legal organization that works to free innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted.
In her nearly 30-year-long career in criminal justice, she has worked as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society and as the president and attorney-in-charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, Inc. In her previous role as the litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Swarns argued and won Buck v. Davis, becoming one of the few Black women to have ever argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Over the last 30 years, the Innocence Project has championed the use of DNA testing to help free more than 200 people who were wrongfully convicted. Of the organization’s 239 victories, 64 percent involved eyewitness misidentification; 52 percent contained unvalidated forensic science; and 27 percent included false confessions. Two-thirds of the 239 people who were exonerated by the organization are people of color, and 58 percent are Black. Furthermore, half of the 2,947 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989 are Black.
In addition to freeing wrongfully convicted people, the organization works to transform the systems responsible for unjust incarcerations, and to build and advance a movement that demands and ensures justice through policy reform. To date, the Innocence Project has changed more than 200 laws to prevent wrongful convictions, and it provides critical support to exonerees whose lives have been destroyed by the criminal legal system.
ESSENCE: Why did you decide to join the Innocence Project?
Christina Swarns: The Innocence Project is the most transformative criminal legal system reform organization in American history. I graduated from law school a year after the Innocence Project opened its doors. At that time, there wasn’t an understanding of the fact that a lot of people were being locked up that were completely innocent. Over the arc of my career, I had a front row seat to the impact of the Innocence Project on the work of the system. I saw how, once people started walking out of prison, exonerated by DNA evidence, judges, prosecutors and jurors changed the way they were interacting with people coming through the system. I always understood that if I came to the Innocence Project, and I was able to leverage that platform for broad reform, we would have a real opportunity to shape and mold the system for the better… .