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Christina Swarns & Sheryl Wilson — Affirming Life Within a Deadly System
Episode 221st February 2022 • Encounters With Dignity • Catholic Mobilizing Network
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In this episode of Encounters With Dignity, you'll hear from Christina Swarns, a defense attorney and current executive director of the Innocence Project, and Sheryl Wilson, a victim outreach specialist and current executive director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution. Together they tell the story of restorative justice happening in one of the most unlikely places: a death penalty case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Capital punishment in the U.S. is a system built on racism and a misguided belief that killing is an appropriate response to killing. Seeing this firsthand in the case of Buck v. Davis, Christina realized she had a greater responsibility than simply defending her client. She invited Sheryl to work alongside the defense team to try to address the unmet needs of those affected by a terrible crime and ultimately break the cycle of violence.

What they learned along the way can help all of us hold space for suffering.

To learn more about restorative justice, visit Catholic Mobilizing Network's website at



Hi there, I’m so glad you’re joining us for episode 2 of Encounters with Dignity, a new podcast on restorative justice from Catholic Mobilizing Network, or CMN for short.

My name is Caitlin Morneau, and I am blessed to serve as CMN’s Director of Restorative Justice. For those new to CMN, we are a national Catholic organization dedicated to ending the death penalty and promoting restorative justice through education, advocacy, and prayer. Founded in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Catholic campaign to end the use of the death penalty, we work to mobilize people of good will to end state-sanctioned killing and cultivate approaches to justice that value life, dignity, and healing – even in cases of grave harm.

In today’s episode, you’ll hear an example of this kind of life-affirming approach to justice, a story of restorative justice happening in one of the most unlikely places: a death penalty case at the United States Supreme Court.

If you’re still learning about restorative justice — and let’s be honest, most of us are — it is a victim-centered approach to justice that seeks to heal the impacts of harm (rather than focusing exclusively on punishment or retribution). It is an approach that uplifts the dignity of everyone involved, and recognizes both our woundedness and healing as mutually connected.

In a moment, we will hear from Christina Swarns and Sheryl Wilson.

Christina is best best known for her role as executive director of the Innocence Project. Before that, she was president and attorney-in-charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, of New York City and spent more than a decade at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

Sheryl is simultaneously the current President of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice and Director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She has been a practitioner, trainer and educator in restorative justice for over fifteen years facilitating victim offender dialogues and leading truth and reconciliation efforts.

ence hosted by CMN in October:

In the U.S. context, racism and the death penalty are two sides of the same ugly coin; you can’t start a conversation about dismantling about one without also addressing the other. Capital punishment is rooted in a history of lynching and racial oppression. In its modern era, the death penalty continues to work in tandem with other hallmark practices of extreme punishment and mass incarceration to perpetuate racial discrimination within the U.S. criminal legal system.

For many Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the legal system has not only failed to meet their needs, but been a source of harm in itself. And so these communities, in the US and the world over, have been instrumental in creating and sustaining grassroots spaces of healing and repair. In a special way this episode, we wish to acknowledge the wisdom and contributions of these leaders and groups.

this episode take us back to:

DIVO utilizes specially trained, independent, Victim Outreach Specialists. These specialists work with survivor families to identify questions, concerns and needs that can be uniquely addressed by the defense and communicate those issues to them. The DIVO process seeks to address distinct needs of victim survivors throughout the justice process by providing a link between the survivors and the defense attorney or defense team.

When thinking about restorative practices, many of us envision a facilitated meeting between someone who experienced harm with the person who harmed them. Here, Christina and Sheryl invite us to imagine integrating restorative approaches in less conventional settings even in what may seem like impossible circumstances.

As you listen, I invite you into a spirit of contemplation …

Where do you hear the Holy Spirit at work in Christina and Sheryl’s stories?

How were the lives of Duane Buck, his victims, and their families honored along the way?

How do you feel called to recognize, root out, and transform racism as it appears in your life?

Now, over to Christina…


I'm here today, in my capacity as a board member of Catholic Mobilizing Network and as the person who represented Duane Buck in a case that went to the United States Supreme court called Buck versus Davis, to talk to you about my litigation of that case and my work with a defense initiated victim outreach specialist and how that contributed to the outcome in that case.

I represented Mr. Buck for about six years when he was on death row in Texas. Mr. Buck was convicted of shooting and killing two people in Harris County; his girlfriend, and another gentleman. There was no question at all about his guilt. He was found outside of the apartment with the guns, right after the shooting took place, and he was arrested on the spot. The case proceeded as one about whether or not Mr. Buck should or should not be executed for his crimes.

This is a case that was fraught from its start, essentially, with questions of race and criminal justice. During the trial in Harris County in Houston, defense counsel introduced the testimony of an expert who testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit crimes in the future because he was black. Obviously, the link between race and dangerousness is false. Obviously, the introduction of testimony suggesting a link between race and dangerousness is false and unconstitutional. But nonetheless, this is the evidence that went to the jury and because this was a case that didn't involve other meaningful evidence of future dangerousness, which in Texas is a prerequisite finding for a death sentence, that evidence was the fact upon which the jury based its decision to impose the death penalty against Mr. Buck.

When I got into the case almost 15 years after the shooting and began to represent Mr. Buck and began to fight for his life and to argue against a death sentence based on race, it became clear to me that we couldn't fight for his life meaningfully and authentically without really engaging with sort of the people, places, and things that were central to this story. And that we couldn't really advocate fully for Mr. Buck's life without engaging around the fact that there are people whose lives were affected by this crime forever, and who had had a clear position and a view on whether the death penalty should be carried out under these circumstances.

This was a gentleman who wound up shooting his girlfriend, who had been with for a very long time. He also wound up shooting and not killing, his own half sister, during the course of this crime. So all of the people involved in this case were intimately known to one another for years, years before this crime.

It was important to us, as a defense team, to if we were going to speak out, to be clear about where that family stood on Mr. Buck. You know, we weren't quite sure what position they were going to take, especially since both Mr. Buck was African-American and his victims were African-American and the claims that we were raising were all about the role of race in the administration of the death penalty.

We weren't quite sure how an African-American family in this circumstance would feel about an execution. And so we knew it was important for us to pursue that question and to find out the answer.

And for anybody that represents someone who has been convicted of a crime, and especially a violent crime, that the idea and the process and the thought of reaching out to the survivors, the people who have been harmed, is perhaps the scariest thing you can do. At least that's how I always viewed it, because you know that the people who have survived, the families, those who have endured violence, have every reason to be angry. They have every reason to be angry at me, as the lawyer. They have every reason to frankly, in this instance, want to see Mr. Buck executed. That fear of what kind of response you're going to get, stops lawyers like me in their tracks and says, "Well, There's no reason for me to reach out. There's no point in reaching out because they're just not going to be helpful. How could they possibly consider engaging with us on this case?"

And so what we decided to do was engage with a defense initiated victim outreach specialist. That is a person who works with a defense team to build a bridge and build a line of communication to the families of the surviving victims or the survivors of violence, I should say. And with a theory that there are often instances where the defense team, for example, may be able to provide information. They may be able to provide background context that the family members can't get otherwise.

So we reached out to one of those folks, her name was Cheryl Wilson, and we said, "Listen, we would love for you to reach out to the family in this case and just find out where they are."

You know, interestingly to our client, I think he had some peace in knowing that we were doing sort of this outreach and that we were proceeding to the best of our abilities, in a way that was respectful of that family and the trauma that they endured. He was a deeply remorseful man and so I think that there was something important to him about us making that connection, and building that bridge.

Here we had an African-American family who had suffered catastrophic loss of life at the hands of my client in a violent crime and so to speak authentically, and to speak meaningfully, and to advocate for Mr. Buck's life without acknowledging, without engaging around the question of the loss of life for that African-American family, for me, I think felt inadequate. So it was important for that reason, and obviously it was important for the case, because to the extent that they were willing to speak up and speak out and say that they were not interested in seeing Mr. Buck executed, it was going to be important to the litigation going forward.


As a criminal defense attorney, Christina has dedicated her life’s work to advocating for the rights and dignity of people involved in the legal system — A system that primarily asks “what law was broken? Who is guilty? And what should their punishment be?” This system espouses objectivity and evidence. But Christina knew that there was more to the story – that racial bias is latent throughout the process and that justice under law in our country is not equal.

You’ll hear Sheryl reflect on a different set of questions than the ones asked by the legal system. These new questions are offered to us by Howard Zehr, pioneer, author, and educator of restorative justice, in his seminal book “Changing Lenses”. They ask: “Who was harmed? How were they impacted? And what needs to be done to make it right?


To pick up where Christina left off, they reached out to me, Sheryl Wilson, to bridge in this circumstance where they, as a defense team, would not have had the capability to go to the surviving family members to find out what their needs are. And just to kind of give you some context about the ways this came to me, at this point in my career, I had been doing restorative justice work for well over a decade as a career and had those skills of being connected to people who have experienced violent harm on many levels. And also I'm sure if I thought about it, I'm not that far removed from the ways that some people in my sphere have had those types of losses.

One of the things that a person in my role as a Defense Victim Outreach Specialist can do, is to offer a respectful Avenue for those people to communicate with defense teams. And some of that is just ways that people, they want to pass on messages to the defense team to express their frustration. And frankly, Christina's saying, they are entering 15 years later, not by Christina's, any fault of hers, but defense teams change over time. And one thing you should also know is, for many people who are involved in these cases, the time frame, the length of time is so long that people tend to have these cases turned over and teams change. And so Christina coming in and acknowledging that is pretty significant. And having someone like me to express the fact that we know that this must be frustrating for this family.

The other thing that may happen is people have these concerns and questions, again, that would be helpful for them to hear from the defense team. We would ask the question, "Who was harmed? What are their needs? And whose obligations are these?" So that is a guiding principle that we use to respond. And so in that, I was able to reach out to Duane Buck’s half sister, as Christina mentioned that there was someone who was open and amenable to connecting with them, who was one of the people who was harmed in this violent crime.

I played a peripheral role in supporting her in just having the conversation with her brother, to talk about what happened. And she had made the decision that she forgave her brother. So in that, just being able to be the bridge in those circumstances, for me, it was just amazing that there was a way that we could respond restoratively in this circumstance. I don't come in as someone who's advocating for the death penalty, or not advocating for the death penalty. That is not my agenda, that is not my role in doing the work that I do.

And just to also be clear, I have never met Duane Buck. And so, in that, I prioritize the work that I do specifically to meet the needs of the families that have been harmed, and have experienced loss, and not so much aligning myself with the person who has perpetrated the harm. And unfortunately of late, we have just mourned so many people losing their lives to the death penalty. And so, I say all of this to say, when this expert made this assertion, that Duane Buck's life was reduced to the fact that he was going to possibly re-offend because he happened to be African-American, and his assertion was that because he's Black, he is going to re-offend. That was the reason why they were supposed to execute this man. And so the dehumanization of that, just is a way of showing once again, how imbalanced the system is in applying the death penalty in capital cases.

And I'll just say that, in this circumstance, my hope is that as we do the work restoratively, we're not serving as advocates for the defendant, of course, but serving as the liaison for families and survivors, and expanding the options that are available to them by providing access to both sides; the prosecution and the defense, and for some people for the longest time, they've just had access to the prosecution. And so having access to the defense gives them more information, more options, more ways, and again, just providing restorative solutions. And that can be the smallest thing.

What I've been able to do in this case is be the ear; be the person that just helps someone process having a conversation to say, "I forgive you. I absolve you." And in that way, I provided options for others. I know in some such situations, I've just been in the back of a room, and I've been possibly texting with someone who is a family member who is trying to reach out to another family member, but can't do so because they're on the other side of the harm. And so in some ways I've just been that person, who's just been brokering things in whatever ways that I can to make the connection in the most restorative way as possible. And that means taking myself and my opinions out of the equation, and prioritizing the needs of that family. To be in the space, to hear people's stories when they have been harmed is something that I hold very sacredly.

When I think about what happens in a capital case like this, what, what people who have been harmed will say often when these cases go on, and on, and on every single time something happens with the case and it receives media coverage, even the smallest thing, like a hearing, a hearing can produce something where that life of that loved one that they've lost is splashed across the headlines once again, and people in these families are just shattered all over again. And they often say it is the wound that never heals, because once again, as they start to go on their healing journeys and get removed from a situation, when those headlines splash their loved one's names out there, once again, and they have to respond to that, it is like ripping a bandaid off of a wound all over again.

And so for that, the systems don't help, the media often doesn't help in these families journeys toward healing. And so if I can sometimes, as a person who knows information that will hit the press, I will reach out to families ahead of time to say, "I just want you to know, I just want to prepare you that this is about to happen." And so in some ways, when I am privileged to have that information, I can stave off or help families to understand when it's coming down the pipeline, to prepare themselves. And so in that, whatever I need to do again, preparing and helping them with restorative solutions is what I would be in the position of service to do.

In the end, I just want to share that what we have, in doing the work, when it comes down to being a liaison, it can be big things. It can be, sometimes I've had to reach out to the person who has perpetrated the harm on behalf of the family, but it can also be the smallest thing and just listening, and holding space, and not asking any questions and just letting someone weep for the loss of their loved one, and not having any agenda or moving it forward in any way. But it is just the fact that that person has experienced loss, and needs someone to just be with them.

Often, in our daily lives, we don't think about how someone who has been through these types of harm. And we have people in our lives that have had these experiences, and so when we can check in like that, it's very important, and vital to the work, to be that bridge, to be whatever it requires to allow a person who has been in the throes of this type of harm, deep, deep harm, the opportunity to do whatever that it requires for them to heal in their journey.


A fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the life and dignity of the human person. This principle affirms that every single one of us has inherent worth — not that we have gained by our own achievement, fortune, or status, but that has been etched into our being as children made in God’s image and likeness. This dignity cannot be taken away, even after suffering or causing grave harm.

Christina and Sheryl, they recognized this sacred dignity in the lives of all those impacted by this terrible crime. They knew that with every legal appeal, every news story, the trauma was unearthed again and again — and with that trauma, human dignity was repeatedly violated.

Christina knew that neither taking nor saving Mr. Buck’s life would undo the pain he’d caused, but that regardless, his life still had God-given value. She knew that by undertaking the DIVO process, their team could do what was within their power to make things as right as possible for those Mr. Buck had harmed.

Sheryl knew that nothing would bring back Debra Gardner or Kenneth Butler, but that reaching out to their families, listening deeply, and being a bridge between them and Mr. Buck’s defense team might just help tend to their wounds and make life without their loved ones a bit more bearable.

In speaking about this process, Sheryl is intentional to say that when acting as a liaison or a facilitator, it’s critical to have training in the process in order not to inadvertently cause further harm. At the same time, we all have people in our lives who have experienced horrific things, and we all have the capacity to listen. We all have the ability to hold space for suffering. The healing power of this cannot be understated.

Thank you so much to Christina and Sheryl and all those impacted by Mr. Buck’s case who found the courage to say “yes” to this DIVO process.

And thank you for tuning in to Encounters With Dignity. We hope you’ll join us again next time to hear more stories of people who are living restorative justice.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Encounters With Dignity on your favorite podcasting platform, or by visiting For podcast updates and announcements about new episodes, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at

If you feel called to bring restorative justice to your Catholic parish or ministry, then check out “Paths of Renewed Encounter,” CMN’s restorative justice engagement guide for Catholic communities. The engagement guide is available as an interactive digital resource, a downloadable PDF, and hard copy workbook. Access them all at

Next time on Encounters with Dignity, join us as we hear from Ernie Garcia, Alumnus of Rise Up Industries’ reentry program in Santee, California, about how restorative justice gave him a second chance and helped to transform his life and relationships.

Please join me in our closing prayer:

God who wept and knows our pain. Sit with us in our hurt, and be with us as we sit with others. Give us ears to listen, shoulders to bear the burden, hearts to show compassion, and voice to challenge unjust systems. And may we always look at each person through the eyes of dignity. Amen.