Christina Swarns wanted to be a hair dresser when she grew up, but her mother didn’t want her standing all day. Then Christina saw the Paul Newman movie ‘The Verdict’ about an alcoholic lawyer who won a major case and that was it – she’d be a lawyer. But even then she may not have known she would be a Death Row lawyer.
In her office on the 16th floor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund offices in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, Swarns brightens when mentioning a collect call the day before from a client she helped get off death row four years ago—someone “near and dear to my heart.” The ABA Journal’s Terry Carter reports:
The caller, Raymond Whitney, is mentally disabled, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that, given evolving standards of decency, it is now cruel and unusual to put such people to death. Swarns and others proved to a judge that Whitney’s impairment met the Atkins test, and he is now serving a life term without possibility of parole.
“It broke his heart in court to hear all his friends talk about how dumb he is,” says Swarns, who brought the case with her in 2003 when she left the Capital Habeas Unit of Philadelphia’s Federal Community Defender Office to become director of the LDF’s Criminal Justice Practice. “We had it set so that when a witness was asked to tell us about Raymond, whoever was beside him would distract him, asking things like, ‘Raymond, did you see the Super Bowl last year?’ He’s a big Dallas Cowboys fan.”
“The judge kept reprimanding us, saying ‘You have to stop talking!’ ”
Up until that time, Swarns says, everyone in Whitney’s life had failed him. She and various experts came to that conclusion after scouring his history and school records.
“There were mentions that ‘he’s learning nothing’ and ‘something’s wrong’ screaming out from the records going back to kindergarten,” she says. “And nothing was ever done. He’s retarded, and he had some kind of brain injury—there was a massive seizure in prison and now he’s on meds. And he’s the sweetest human being.”
Asked about the crime that put Whitney on death row, Swarns, 44, simply says, “I don’t remember the details. It wasn’t good.”
Death penalty lawyers can’t dwell on such things. They hew to humane principles in seeking due process and equal justice for some who acted at the furthest fringes of human behavior—though sometimes they naturally bond with their clients in battles over the highest of stakes.
Something in that mix might be best summed up in a line from the movie made of Sister Helen Prejean’s nonfiction book Dead Man Walking, in which the nun tells a skeptical prison guard, “I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus, who said that a person is not as bad as his worst deed.”