Unconventional Interviews: Investigating Crimes & Freeing the Innocent with Rene Denfeld

by Gigi Griffis

This is part of my unconventional interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)

Today, Rene Denfeld, the author of my favorite book I read in 2015 (The Enchanted) has agreed to share with us about her career as an investigator working with those accused of crimes.

Her book is a fictional look into a prison and the story of an investigator like herself. It’s gorgeous and unexpected and, as I said before, the best book I read in 2015. And when I discovered that Rene herself does investigative work, I just had to know more.

First, tell us about you.

I live in Portland, Oregon with my three fabulous kids, adopted from foster care. They are the best choice I ever made. For work I am the Chief Investigator at an indigent defense firm. I specialize in working with men and women facing execution. I also exonerate innocent people and help those accused. For fun…well, I have odd ideas about that. I find my work and life incredibly redemptive. I think about fun more as those moments of pure light and magic and humor that happen when we are doing what we love. Cracking up with my kids. Laughing with colleagues. Touching the hand of someone saved from execution. And also self-care. I am big on self-care. I love to exercise, go for walks, and see friends.

Tell us about your work with those accused of crimes? What exactly do you do?

I am a licensed Investigator. That means I investigate accused crimes. I look at evidence, interview witnesses, and so forth. Often I am the only person standing between an innocent client and an unfair conviction. Our justice system relies on investigators to find out the truth. It is a very important job that is unfortunately not funded or appreciated as it should be.

How did you get into that and why is it important to you?

I was an investigative journalist before. I went into this work because it seemed much more satisfying. I get to use my investigative, shoe-leather digging skills to actually help people and further the cause of justice.

What have been the biggest challenges of this kind of work? Was there ever a time you wanted to quit…and, if so, what made you stick with it?

The biggest challenge is the pay. Indigent defense work is indigent pay. It can be awful. I would make more in many other places. I’ve never wanted to quit. Ever. It is the most rewarding job ever. I have saved innocent people from execution and from prison. Nothing could be more rewarding.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your work?

Those little moments of finding truth, even unpleasant. For all our society’s focus on crime and violence, we don’t cherish truth as we should.

How has this work changed your perspective over time?

I have empathy for everybody, even those who support the death penalty. We live in such a frightened, panicked culture. And this is interesting: the more pain I bear witness to, the more I become an optimist. People are beautiful. Life is beautiful.

If someone is interested in pursuing this kind of work, what advice would you give them? What kind of background or skills should they build?

They should contact me. It’s a tough field. They need to have a combination of grit, empathy, strength and a hell of a good crap detector.

What’s next for you?

My novel The Enchanted was inspired by my work. I am still writing when I get a chance and hope to foster more kids.

Now, to you. Any questions for Rene?

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