American Nightmare: Counsel of Record Christina Swarns Talks Buck v. Davis

Christina Swarns, litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is acutely aware that the Supreme Court ruling on this case will not just affect her client Duane Buck.

Christina Swarns, litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead counsel for Duane Buck
Christina Swarns, litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead counsel for Duane Buck Keith Major Photography/LDF

Editor’s note: For more information about the Buck v. Davis case, read “Racial Bias Got Duane Buck the Death Sentence; the Supreme Court Can Fix It,” also on The Root.

Christina Swarns, litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has her work cut out for her Wednesday.

Swarns is lead counsel in Buck v. Davis, which her team will argue before the Supreme Court of the United States to try to get Duane Buck a new, fair sentencing, after the initial sentencing phase in his capital murder case was tainted with bias and led him to be sentenced to death, solely based on his race.

For Swarns, Buck’s case is the epitome of the American nightmare.

“This is saying out loud, in a courtroom with a veneer of expert and scientific legitimacy, that black people are more dangerous and therefore should be executed. Like this is, it’s astonishing to me,” Swarns told The Root in a phone interview Monday.

Swarns acknowledges that she doesn’t have an easy job, but she doesn’t necessarily think about it that way. To her, she has an obligation not to turn her back on the kinds of people she represents.

“These are really human beings who are more than just the worst day of their lives and the worst crime that they’ve ever committed,” she said. “I get to see this three-dimensional human being who’s funny and sad and smart or not smart, but a full person, and so I have a relationship with them, and so they of course motivate me, but also I’m definitely motivated by the outrage of what happens.”

The outrage she’s referring to is what she sees as the government or a state completely flouting the law. She tells The Root that all her clients, without exception, are poor, grew up with nothing, got handed the “worst lawyers in the world,” and are often given the ultimate punishment after being failed by everyone at every turn in the process.

Swarns’ passion for righting these wrongs came in a rather roundabout fashion. She says, with a delightful bout of laughter, that she never really knew what she wanted to do. She knew she wanted to be a lawyer and do good things, be like Thurgood Marshall and change the world, but was unsure as to what that meant.

But she ended up volunteering with the LDF (long before returning full circle), at which point she was placed on what was then called the Capital Punishment Project. Swarns says that it was as if a lightbulb went off.

“I literally was flabbergasted; I could not believe—I was very naive—I could not believe that people were being executed with the worst lawyers in the world and without their claims being heard,” she said.

Buck’s case is pretty much a 20-year culmination of injustices. And as one of the few black female nongovernment lawyers to appear before the Supreme Court, she fully recognizes the importance of Buck’s case.

“It is a point of concern for me, particularly in this moment in American history and time. I think it’s important for us to wrestle with and bring an end to the ‘race as dangerous stereotype’ because of the profoundly dangerous consequences it has to people that look like me and Buck,” she said.

“I’m acutely aware that this is not just Buck that this case affects because of what’s happening in the world all about, with the police shootings. It’s all about ‘Black is dangerous,’ so obviously the case implicates those concerns very powerfully even though it doesn’t raise them explicitly.”

But Swarns is confident in her argument, and confident that the law is on her side. After all, Americans decided decades ago that an individual could not be judged based on his or her race. She wants to close the argument once and for all, naturally hoping that the Supreme Court will rule in Buck’s favor, but also that the court will ensure that the message will come across loud and clear that this kind of racially motivated sentencing cannot be allowed.

“I think it’s important for the Supreme Court to rule here to make clear to the lower courts that you can’t turn a blind eye to … this kind of egregious racial discrimination because of the impact that it has not just on the case at hand but on the integrity of [the] criminal-justice system overall, on public perception of its reliability and its integrity. When these kinds of questions are squarely on the table, there’s sort of a higher burden,” she says.

And for Swarns, it also goes far beyond race.

“This is a situation where today black people are dangerous, but tomorrow somebody else is dangerous. So I think that although this certainly resonates right now among people of color, it’s an argument and a theory that should concern everybody because it could be any quality,” she mused. “Any quality could be a basis for an execution, and no immutable characteristic should be considered in that capacity … I don’t think we want to travel that road.”

Breanna Edwards is news editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.