Litigator will give Peace Lecture, speak at symposium

Christina Swarns, in black jacket and white shirt, wearing glasses with red frames

Christina Swarns ought to be a household name, says Bethel College’s Sheryl Wilson.

Wilson, the executive director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, and her organization will do their best to make Swarns better known in south-central Kansas when Swarns comes to campus for KIPCOR’s 50th-anniversary Peace Lecture.

That event takes place March 1 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall. Swarns’s lecture is entitled “Justice Delayed is Democracy Denied.”

Swarns is a featured panelist the next day, March 2, for a one-day endowed Justice Symposium on the Bethel campus.

Like the lecture, the symposium is free and open to anyone. The symposium requires pre-registration by going to

Swarns is the executive director of Innocence Project, a position she’s held since 2020. Innocence Project has freed from prison or exonerated 250 people who were wrongly convicted, since it started in 1995.

A graduate of Howard University in political science, and of the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, Swarns has spent her entire career as a defense attorney working on behalf of the legally disadvantaged, particularly in capital cases.

She started out as a staff attorney for the Legal Defense Society, before moving on to the Habeas Corpus Unit of the Philadelphia Federal Defender.

Swarns then spent 14 years with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, concluding with three years as litigation director – walking in the footsteps of famed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

From 2017-20, she was attorney-in-charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD), one of New York City’s oldest providers of appellate representation to poor people convicted of felonies, and the city’s second oldest institutional indigent defense office.

As a leading capital defense attorney, Swarns has litigated several notable cases, including that of Nicholas Yarris, the first person exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row by DNA.

While serving as the litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Swarns represented Duane Buck, a Black man sentenced to death in Texas based on explicitly racist evidence.

In 2016, Swarns served as lead counsel for Buck, arguing Buck v. Davis in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s 6-2 ruling in Buck’s favor was monumental not only because it vacated his sentence, but also because it explicitly condemned racial bias in the administration of criminal justice.

Swarns was the only Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court that term, and is one of the very few Black women who has ever argued before the high court. 

Wilson knows Swarns because Wilson was a consultant on the Buck case, and later served with Swarns on the board of Catholic Mobilizing Network. Wilson has long wanted to bring Swarns to Bethel.

“The 50th anniversary of KIPCOR’s Peace Lectures seemed like the right time,” Wilson said. “She’s the right one to tell the stories [of exoneration].

“It’s powerful to see a Black woman in this role. I want our community, especially our students, to see Christina and her achievements.

“Sometimes we’re brought into moments that if we maximize them, we can walk into our greatness, and I think Christina embodies that. She is accessible and humble. I tell people she is walking history.

“If you think about the work Thurgood Marshall did – she has quietly filled those shoes. People don’t know who she is, but they should.”

Wilson noted that the death penalty has long been an issue in front of Kansas lawmakers.

“To have someone talking about these issues [at Bethel] now is at a right time for the state of Kansas, as we’re in the throes of weighing legislatively what to do with the death penalty,” Wilson said. “Kansas has been in this limbo for a long time. I hope we can do something to shine a light on these issues.

“The 50th anniversary of KIPCOR’s Peace Lecture Series warrants someone who can step into this moment with an issue of our times.”

For more information or to pre-register for the Justice Symposium, go to