Nobody expects The Inquisitor!
But we weren’t able to take criminal defense investigator Amber Kaset by surprise. She’s steady at the helm, unflappable, and generally unfazed by the kinds of chaotic situations and crimes she investigates—traits that make her the ideal, unbiased advocate for her clients.
We met Kaset a few years ago at a meeting of Nashville private investigators. She immediately stood out as, quite probably, the smartest person in the room. A young but very experienced criminal investigator for the public defender’s office, she exuded a quiet competence…and was bilingual to boot. We figured we’d better make friends.
Since then, we’ve gotten to know Amber quite well. She gets more done in a day than most people get done in a week. Her disarming charm and dogged persistence make her an extraordinary criminal investigator. Less than three years into her new business, she’s highly sought after, specifically in capital defense investigations, fielding calls about cases across the country. (Full disclosure: we’ve subcontracted occasionally for each others’ firms, and executive editor Thomas Humphreys is working a case for AK Investigations as we speak.)
We were lucky enough to catch her in the rare spare moment between handling a staggering case load, managing the business side of things, and caring for her two-year old daughter.
How did you get started in the criminal investigations field?
In college, during a year abroad in Spain, I decided to write my thesis about Basque nationalism. I realize now that I was developing and fine-tuning my investigator skills back then, as I interviewed people in Madrid and San Sebastian (in Spanish!) about the struggle between the Spanish government and Basque nationalists. Interviews in criminal cases are similarly difficult and often emotionally charged. After that experience, falling into professional investigations felt natural.
After a few years in Spain, I came home—broke, tired and ready for a comfortable bed. A job at the public defender’s office in Nashville helping with Spanish-speaking clients fell into my lap. A few months later, I moved into a criminal defense investigator position.
What was the impetus for launching your own investigations company?
I’d been toying with the idea of doing something professionally that freed me up to travel again. I loved my job but felt there were more opportunities out there for me. I’d been at the public defender’s office for about seven years. I wasn’t sure how feasible it would be to take a shot at working in the private sector, but I just felt in my gut that it was time to take that risk.
Was it tough to start your own business during a recession? Were there any bumps in the road?
The economy didn’t affect my income as much as my unexpected pregnancy, which I discovered about a week after leaving my public defender job (with bennies). I spent months trying to conceal my pregnancy so that people wouldn’t shy away from hiring me for cases. It wasn’t an easy thing to hide—I’ll never forget throwing up in the projects looking for witnesses and shamefully walking to the McDonald’s next door to freshen up. Even with pregnancy and my daughter’s birth, I had a decent first year.
Is it difficult for a female investigator/business owner in this field? Did people discourage you or insinuate that you weren’t up to the task?
There were a few men in my field who discouraged me at first. They said that I wouldn’t make a living for two years (which wasn’t true at all). Some didn’t take me seriously, and others made sure to tell me to not go after “their attorneys.” I did not get a warm welcome into the field by many investigators.
I’d say that there are times when it’s a real advantage to be a woman in this field. The bottom line is that, in a lot of situations, it really is just less threatening to find a woman on your doorstep than a man. It’s all about disarming the witness.
How have the first few years been?
I was fortunate. When I started my firm, I had cases right out of the gate. I’d made lots of connections in the Nashville legal community during my time at the public defender’s office, so I didn’t have to advertise.
Being self-employed has been scary and intense, but I’m so glad I got outside of my comfort zone. I’m the toughest boss I’ve ever had, so I actually work much more and take less time off than before I was self-employed. I have yet to do much traveling, ironically enough, but I’m planning an adventure to Spain this year. The business is blossoming and I’m so grateful for that.
Any lessons, regrets, funny stories, or “wish I’d known that a year ago” tales you’d like to share?
There’s no hazard pay in this work. Investigating in the criminal defense arena is more than background searches and interviews, I’ve learned. Like doctors or counselors, good defense investigators develop a rapport with clients and their families. There’s a certain intimacy to the work—lots of hand-holding, trust gaining, phone calls, and sometimes, just being there.
I have a million ridiculous stories. Most I can’t share, to protect the accused. Generally speaking, people have nearly killed each other over honey buns using polish sausages as weapons. They’ve been involved in inappropriate romances with the neighbor’s poodle. They’ve left their wallets at crime scenes. If you can imagine it, it’s been done.
For you, working the defense side is a passion. Could you comment on why you think defense work is important, especially the capital cases you’ve worked on?
I blindly fell into defense work and immediately connected with it. I’ve been asked how I could help “those people,” meaning individuals charged with or convicted of crimes such as murder and rape. I find a place in myself, a very basic human place where I can connect with my clients, keeping in mind that we all have the same fundamental needs and struggles. I look at their situations based on where they come from, how they’ve lived, basically the hand of cards they’ve been dealt in life.
The criminal justice system is so often biased against those of a lower socioeconomic status, which I find disturbing. I have seen this, coupled with racial bias, put people in jail for time they don’t deserve.
A perfect example of this was a poor immigrant client I helped once. She clearly loved her baby, but was charged with child abuse based on extremely weak physical evidence. She spent almost a year in jail before her charges were completely dismissed. She lost the first year of her child’s life. I can’t help but wonder: if it had been me—middle class, white and fluent in English—would that ever have happened? I feel confident that it wouldn’t have.
I feel that I belong on this side of things—helping people in these situations, to make even a little dent in balancing out the injustice of the system. I have the opportunity to walk with people through difficult times and to sometimes make a difference. I often work with the poor and downtrodden, and no matter what they’ve done, I can be there without judgement. For me, investigating is so much more than a way to pay the bills.
When investigating a capital case, I feel that I’m not only working towards the goal of saving one person’s life; I’m also working on something bigger. It feels good to be part of that. I’ve heard it said: “All of us are worth more than our worst act.” That rings true to my ears. And I believe everyone deserves a first-class defense.
Do you feel pressure when someone’s life is on the line? At the same time, is it kind of energizing when there’s something so important at stake?
It can be an incredible amount of pressure, but I’ve been doing this work long enough that I know what it takes. I’m rarely overwhelmed by facts in a case—I’ve seen it all. I think defense investigators have to get comfortable in so many uncomfortable situations, the primary pressure is getting the work done by the deadline. Every defendant has something huge at stake, whether it’s life and/or freedom. It can be energizing and sometimes draining to get so involved in the dark details of people’s lives, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Amber Kaset is a criminal defense investigator and founder of AK Investigations.