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Death Penalty Investigator Says Her Work Is To Uncover The Why

Author Rene Denfeld's novel, "The Enchanted," is based on her work as a death penalty investigator.

Author Rene Denfeld’s novel, “The Enchanted,” is based on her work as a death penalty investigator.

Gary Norman

Portland freelance writer and author Rene Denfeld says she found her way into death penalty investigation work out of necessity.

In 2007, freelance opportunities were drying up, and she’d adopted three children from foster care whom she needed to support. “Think Out Loud” asked Denfeld about her work as part of our series on capital punishment in Oregon.

Denfeld told host Dave Miller there are two reasons she’s hired. One is to look for evidence about whether the person convicted of the crime actually did it. Across the country, there have been hundreds of death penalty exonerations — but none in Oregon. The other reason is “to dig into the childhood and conduct these thorough investigations into the lives of clients to find out why they did it, who they are and what led this person to this place in their life.”

Denfeld says it’s often a long, deep dive that she calls a “fascinating form of investigation.” For instance, she says, “I will go find old yearbooks and locate their teachers. I’ll go find even the doctor that delivered them, the neighbors that might have heard the screaming, the foster parents that might have taken care of them.”

Denfeld says almost all her cases involve histories of horrific child abuse and neglect. And that’s the part of the work she says is most heartbreaking.

“Just about every case I’ve had was preventable. A lot of times, there were so many balls that were dropped. Times when child abuse allegations weren’t followed up on. When children were returned to abusive and neglectful parents, when school systems failed,” she says.

Denfeld has written about her own traumatic background: growing up in poverty, with the only man she had known as a father a “predatory sex offender.” She says it’s that very background that helps her understand and relate to the range of people she has to talk to.

“And I think having this kind of horribly traumatic history, allows me to understand these men, allows me to understand their families,” she says. “It also allows me to really honor and respect the victims. I know what it’s like to experience terror and fear and anger.”

One thing she’s found in the 10 years she’s done this work is that more than anything, victim’s families want to be heard and respected — something she says is not happening.

“It’s really horrible what we do to the families of these victims. In that the appeals process that we have to go through, end up dragging them through trial after trial for a number of years. And I just think that’s just a terrible thing to do to them,” she says.

Researching the history of the men convicted of these brutal crimes is often heartbreaking work, she says, but that doesn’t mean she’s justifying their actions in any way: “It’s very important to understand that in no way is this meant to dismiss the gravity of their offense. I’m really trying to honor what happened by learning the truth of it.”

For her, getting to the why behind what happened is the most vital thing she does as a death penalty investigator.

“I’m really asked to find out the truth of this person, which I think is very important, because we need to know why these things happen. You know, we’re never going to learn how to prevent these kind of horrible crimes if we don’t know why. “

Timeline: The Death Penalty In Oregon

As part of the “Think Out Loud” series on the death penalty, Bill Long, author of “A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon,” tells us about Oregon’s back-and-forth relationship with the death penalty.

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