Author, Journalist & Death Penalty Investigator, Rene Denfeld

Author, Journalist & Death Penalty Investigator, Rene Denfeld Image

“Rene Denfeld is a genius. In The Enchanted, she has imagined one of the grimmest settings in the world—a dank and filthy death row in a corrupt prison—and given us one of the most beautiful, heartrending, and riveting novels I have ever read.” ~ Donald Ray Pollock (author of The Devil All the Time).

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Pollock’s praise is just one of the many rave reviews for Rene Denfeld’s novel, The Enchanted (HarperCollins, 2014).

Denfeld is a journalist (her portfolio includes pieces in New York Times Magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer) and an internationally best-selling author with three published non-fiction books under her belt:  All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families (PublicAffairs, 2007), Kill The Body, The Head Will Fall (Warner Books, 1997) and The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order (Grand Central Publishing, 1996).

The Portland, Oregon-based writer is also a death row investigator. Like “The Lady” in The Enchanted, Denfeld works with men and women facing execution to uncover their life stories and to create opportunities for commuting death sentences to life in prison. caught up with Denfeld to learn more about her multi-faceted career, her novel and her insightful thoughts on themes from crime prevention to humanity.

CJSI: Have you always been interested in the criminal justice system?

RD: I had met death penalty investigators while researching my third book, on a street kid killing. I was fascinated by their work. There were a lot of similarities to reporting, but it also seemed a chance to delve so much deeper, into the true roots of crime. By getting to know a person and their story, I thought I could get to know the complex truth of why they did such a terrible thing. After that third book came out, I realized I needed a day job. Writing wasn’t paying the bills, and I had three kids I had adopted from foster care. I decided to become licensed as a death penalty investigator. I didn’t look back.

CJSI: As a death penalty investigator based in Portland, Oregon, what credentials do you have?

RD:  I’m licensed as a private investigator. In order to do death penalty work, I need to meet the ABA guidelines for capital work, which includes having additional and continuing education on issues such as mental illness, child abuse and neglect, and other factors affecting our clients. I’ve actually found my experience and training as a foster mom has been most beneficial for my work. I have a lot of training in issues such as FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), drug effects, trauma, PTSD, etc.

CJSI: I imagine it varies, but what does the role of a death penalty investigator involve?

RD:  My job is much like the character called “The Lady” in The Enchanted. I spend time with the clients, helping them share their secrets. Most of my work is investigating their lives. I track down long-lost relatives, family friends, old neighbors, teachers, doctors. I find records that have been buried in warehouses. Basically, I am trying to learn their story. I often tell witnesses I need to learn the good, bad, and ugly. Every part of this person is what I am trying to learn. And by learning all those pieces, I can understand who they are, and how they ended up where they are.

The second part of my job comes in when I turn my findings over to the attorneys who are representing them. The attorneys are hopeful I will find something mitigating—something that will cause a judge or jury to extend mercy. Or, if I am investigating the facts of the crime, they want to know if the client is truly guilty.

But what the attorneys are looking for does not change the integrity of my work. I strongly believe judges and juries deserve to consider all the facts when weighing punishment. That is how true justice occurs.

CJSI: Who hires you?

RD: I am hired by the attorneys representing men and women facing execution. I am  paid by the state offices for indigent services.

CJSI: What is most challenging about your role?

RD: In three words: too much trauma. The only way I can do my job is to be open to people, to accept and hold and bear witness to their pain. Witnesses are often sharing painful secrets and memories with me. I have to hear those secrets—truly hear them, and carry them—in order to learn the truth.

CJSI: What is most rewarding?

RD: I feel blessed to have people share their stories with me. I love to hear stories. That I get to learn other people’s stories is amazing. Sometimes it is the mundane. How do they prepare their food? What was it like to grow up on a reservation, or in a ghetto, or in a meth lab? Their histories come alive to me in their stories. It is like being given the best possible gift, because I get to keep those stories, inside of me, where I can marvel at them.


CJSI: What was the process like writing The Enchanted?

RD: I’ve described it as enchanting, because it was. It was like falling down a rabbit hole. People would walk past me and I wouldn’t see them. I was just too caught up in the narrator’s voice.

CJSI: How much of The Enchanted is inspired by your actual, day-to-day profession?

RD: Quite a bit, especially the sections on The Lady and her work. The narrator? He felt like his own being.

CJSI: For those who may have misconceptions about death row inmates, what would you like them to know?

RD: A police detective once commented to me that what was hard was not the ways they are different, but the ways they are the same. You cannot be around them without seeing, and feeling, their humanity. It is a hard thing to carry: the realization that a person can have a soul and do terrible harm.

CJSI: You clearly have empathy and seek to understand the clients you work with. Do you think this is a quality anyone working in the criminal justice system should strive to have?

RD: I would hope it would be a quality we all strive to have. It’s easy to pass judgment. We do it a lot in our culture. We like to point fingers and tell each other how wrong we are. Left does it to right, right does it to left. We forget how much we could learn about each other if we just listened. It’s the greatest gift to give each other, to listen.

CJSI: What makes someone a criminal?

RD: What makes us human? What makes us as capable of harm as of love? Sometimes it can be one small step. More often it is like beginning at the base of a funnel under the rush of too many toxins. How miraculous we are, to be able to overcome—I did, as a child from a horrible childhood—and yet how delicate we are, to sometimes succumb. There is no easy answer.

CJSI: What can we as a society be doing better to prevent crime, particularly violent crime?

RD: I see several common themes in my work. Most of my clients have experienced horrific child abuse, neglect, and sexual molestation. Many were bounced around in foster homes, or moved all the time. Just giving children stability can make a huge difference. Let them grow up in communities where they can find healthy adults if their own parents cannot function.

CJSI: Is there anything you would like to add?

RD: We all have bigger hearts than we imagine. We’re all capable of helping each other. Our society wants us to believe we are weaker than we are, that we will crumple if asked to carry the burdens of others. It’s not true.

To learn more about Rene Denfeld and her latest novel, visit: