It sure makes for one heck of an icebreaker whenever Christina Swarns mentions that she represents the notorious Mumia Abu-Jamal.

But Swarns didn't take on such a controversial case just to engage in holiday party chitchat.

Forget for a minute that Swarns believes in Abu-Jamal's innocence. She is just as passionate about what anti-death-penalty activists believe worldwide - that the application of the death penalty in this country is racist.

It's the reason Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Practice for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has done capital-case work for 15 years. And it's the reason she teamed with Judith L. Ritter, a law professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Widener University, to represent Abu-Jamal in recent appeals.

Both lawyers say District Attorney Seth Williams' decision not to pursue a death sentence against Abu-Jamal was the right thing to do. Abu-Jamal, 58, a journalist turned cause célèbre, will undoubtedly spend the rest of his life in prison.

Reluctant agreement

The family of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner probably thinks life is too good for Abu-Jamal, though Faulkner's widow, Maureen, reluctantly stood in agreement with the district attorney as he made his announcement last week.

Still, I agree with Swarns and Ritter. Considering the mess made of the circus that was Abu-Jamal's trial - the evidence of racial bias, instances of evidence contamination, jury suppression - the defendant deserves another day in court.

"I know Mumia didn't have a fair trial, but we're focused right now with making sure he gets off of death row," Ritter says.

No matter what side you come down on, here's one fact that's irrefutable: Every research study available shows that when it comes to capital-punishment cases, being black almost always influences the likelihood of death.

Race matters

Swarns, 43, a graduate of the Penn law school, said she realized how much race mattered during the seven years she worked on appeals in the capital unit of Philadelphia's Federal Community Defender Office.

"It was impossible for me not to be struck by the sea of black men coming through the system," she says. "I knew, as a black person, that black people weren't that bad. It stuck in my gut that something was fundamentally wrong."

Study after study shows that the murderers of white victims are more likely than the murderers of black victims to be executed, and that black defendants are more likely than white defendants to receive the death penalty for the same - or lesser - crimes.

If that isn't alarming enough, a chilling 2005 study led by Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt revealed that the more African Americans looked stereotypically black - darker skin, broader noses, thicker lips - the more time they served for felonies than defendants who looked "less black."

The title of the study? "Looking Deathworthy."

Swarns contends that the media demonized Abu-Jamal to make him look deathworthy.

"They basically talked about how black he was," she said. "His dreadlocks, how he covered black issues, how he was affiliated with black organizations. ... They just hammered away. That meant something [threatening] to Philadelphia in 1981."

Indeed, Ritter, 55, who has spent the last nine years as part of Abu-Jamal's defense team, agrees that the legal system "still has a problem with race. To know that people are being executed [based on racial bias], you wonder why anyone would be comfortable with it."

The attorneys say it's impossible to administer the death penalty fairly. The solution is to abolish it.

"We have an enormous number of people who say government should not be in the business of doing a lot less deadly things, like administering health care," Swarns says. "Why should government decide who lives and who dies?"

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh.