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Christina Swarns L’93, Honorary Fellow in Residence, offers Public Interest Week keynote address

March 11, 2014

In 1993, the year that Christina Swarns, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a young black man named Kenneth Reams was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for his involvement in the killing of a white man in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Having spent the past two decades on death row, Reams is now Swarns’ client.

Swarns, who is the Director of the Criminal Justice Practice of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, returned to the Law School as the Honorary Fellow in Residence during Public Interest Week.

In her keynote address to the Law School community on Feb. 25, she used Reams’ story to illustrate how our nation’s history of racial prejudice and cruelty continues to reverberate in the criminal justice system and society at large.

Swarns’ passionate talk on the role of race in the administration of the death penalty wove together past and present and touched on the controversial verdicts in the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

“Both of those verdicts,” she said, “stand as our most recent national reminders that – notwithstanding the extraordinary racial progress that has been made – this country remains haunted by the demons of its most racist and lawless past.”

Swarns’ Arkansas client received the death sentence for his involvement in an ATM robbery-murder. At the time of his conviction and sentencing in 1993, Reams was the youngest person on Arkansas’ death-row. He had just turned 18 when the shooting took place.

Reams was an accomplice to the killing; his co-defendant, who was the shooter, pled guilty and received a sentence of life without parole. “There are a lot of things wrong with Mr. Reams’ case,” Swarns said, “but for purposes of this discussion, it is enough to repeat that the shooter got life and the non-shooter got death. That deeply unjust and paradoxical result is enough to warrant some curiosity about the integrity of the system that produced it.”

LDF’s Criminal Justice Practice uses litigation, advocacy, and public education to eliminate the improper role of race in the criminal justice system. As Swarns’ investigated the Reams case, she discovered that there were two small law firms that received contracts to serve as public defenders in Jefferson County, where Pine Bluffs is located. One was a law firm with two black attorneys; the other was a law firm staffed by at least one white attorney.

Her investigation revealed that the cases of the black public defender were sent to the black judge. The cases of the white public defender were sent to the white judge. Trials before the black judge sometimes included black jurors. Trials before the white judge rarely included black jurors.

 “None of this was in writing anywhere, of course,” Swarns said. “It was just the way things were in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, [in 1993]. I hope I don’t have to tell you that this is not a recipe for a healthy criminal justice system. It’s not likely a constitutional system. It is certainly not the kind of place that I would expect a fair adjudication of a cross-racial stranger murder at an ATM machine.”

As she dug even deeper into the case, she discovered something else: “The black people of Pine Bluff were afraid to come to court. Not just as defendants – which would be understandable – but for any reason at all…. I found it all but inconceivable that a community of black people were afraid to go into a courthouse. So it made me wonder how on earth that could happen.”

Swarns began researching the history of Pine Bluff and discovered that it had been the site of an appalling lynching of 24 men, women and children in 1866.

“This literally almost stopped my heart,” she said. “Good Lord. At that point, I knew we were on the trail of understanding how Pine Bluff became what it was in 1993. So I did more digging. And it turns out that lynchings took place all over Arkansas. And Jefferson County was in the group of counties with the highest number of recorded lynchings.”

Ultimately, Swarns discovered that, besides the mass lynching in 1866, six additional people were lynched in Pine Bluff between 1878 and 1926. Two of those lynchings took place at the Courthouse.

“With that discovery, it suddenly made sense that the people in Pine Bluff believed that the courthouse was a bad place for a black man to be.”

She continued: “I represent a young black man who was condemned to death for the murder of a white man. He was not the shooter. The shooter got life. The shooter was represented by the black public defender who understood the enormity and the uniqueness of the risk associated with taking a young black man to trial for the murder of a white man in Pine Bluff. So he built a relationship of trust sufficient to enable him to convince his client to accept a non-death deal. My client was represented by the white public defender. He had no relationship with his lawyer. He did not trust his lawyer. His lawyer did not understand or appreciate or care about the challenges facing black people in Pine Bluff. He certainly did not attempt to explain to my client how those challenges would severely disadvantage him at any trial. And the black people were largely absent for Kenny’s trial.

“Why did all this happen? I don’t think it’s from just today’s dynamics. I think that this is a perfect example of how, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ And how this saying is so utterly true in the context of race.”