University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

I Ask Inmates What Happened

An author and criminal defense investigator describes her work.

I prefer to go to jail after lunch. Afternoons are less restrictive when it comes to inmate count, lockdown, mealtimes, the client’s mood, my mood.

I am a criminal defense investigator in Nashville, Tennessee. When I meet a client for the first time, the handshake can be awkward because his hands are cuffed to the belt around his waist. (I’ve never met with a female inmate who was cuffed during our meeting.) Sealed off from the rest of the jail by concrete walls, I ask inmates to tell me what happened the day they allegedly murdered or raped or robbed or assaulted a person, or multiple people.

Distractions—a guard coming in and out of the room, a growling stomach—can throw off the way someone tells me his or her version of the event that resulted in an incarcerated life. Once, a client was about to tell me about his relationship with the MS-13 gang and a guard opened the door to get chairs out of our room. It took a month to get him to open up about that topic again. 

My job is all about building trust while searching for the truth. Sometimes those endeavors don’t work well together. It can be like getting close to a therapist—perhaps you want to get along but you’re afraid of their judgment. So we can share a warm moment and then I have to follow with the question: “But what really happened?”

Since childhood, stories have helped me understand why people treat each other the way they do. In my work as an investigator, I start to piece together stories from the bowels of jails and prisons in hopes that criminals, when they are presented in the courtroom, are given a chance to pursue lives worth living. Or a chance to continue living at all. 

"Sometimes, I enter the case when the client is staring down a life sentence or the death penalty."

But all too often, stories can be so porous and erratic—especially the ones that people want, more than anything in the world, to forget. By the time I meet my client, I’ve studied crime scene photographs, watched videos of interrogations, and learned the names and backgrounds of everyone involved. I have this information because detectives “discover” the story first and assemble their own lengthy reports. I retrace the detectives’ steps—with the interests of the accused in mind—and speak to the people who played a part in the event. By the time I meet witnesses, months, sometimes years, have gone by. Memories and sentiments have changed. I put together a version of the story based on my findings. In the courtroom, my observations face off with those collected by the detectives and prosecution. 

Sometimes, I enter the case when the client is staring down a life sentence or the death penalty. In these cases, I put together a story that reveals how the defendant is a human being, not just a person who has been charged with a serious crime. I meet with inmates multiple times and ask them about their childhoods, parents, the time they broke an arm skateboarding, favorite meals, the memory of a best friend dying, a gang initiation. Then I back up their stories with records that offer proof that their recollections are true. The prosecution revisits this information and usually dismisses it as “the abuse excuse.”

The process is an uphill battle in which each isolated victory (a case getting dismissed; a client winning at trial) propels me forward. But the work is also artistically satisfying. “There is no better way of exercising the imagination than the study of law,” wrote the novelist Jean Giraudoux. “No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth.”

Veronica Kavass (M.F.A. ’17) is a criminal defense investigator and writer based in Nashville. She is currently finishing a collection of essays on Nashville’s immigrant history.