My Job: Murder Maven

NAME: Reneau Kennedy
JOB: Clinical and forensic psychologist 

BEGINNINGS: Kennedy was born and raised in rural Idaho. She received her doctorate in psychology from Boston University in 1994. “I did my dissertation on men who murdered and I did two subsequent studies on domestic homicide. The staff at the facilities I would visit would call me ‘the murder maven,’ ” Kennedy says.

“I developed an interest in this field after having a year-long placement during my doctoral training at a state hospital for the criminally insane. What attracted me was learning about the dark side of human nature, which is not easily understandable.”

She decided to move to Hawai‘i in 1997 after working on a military murder case here.

WHAT IT TAKES: “This work involves interaction with courts and professionals in criminal, civil and family courts – both state and federal – including military courts. It requires post-doctoral training in psycholegal assessments, as well as in understanding specialized legal questions.

“A good forensic psychologist must have a solid training in normative human development, from cradle to old age, an understanding of what are considered ‘reasonable behaviors’ in the eyes of the court, and what is problematic in human behaviors from a functional as well as a legal perspective.”

CASES: Kennedy stresses she’s ethically bound not to reveal specific details of cases, but says she has been involved in cases running the gamut from rape and homocide to child abuse and child pornography. About half of her cases are local; the rest are Mainland or international – many involve military personnel.

“Sometimes a single Facebook posting tells more about the person than hours of testing and forensic interviewing.” —Reneau Kennedy

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY: “It’s not an easy field. One of my preceptors at Harvard Medical School told me I needed to develop a ‘thick skin.’ I had a case where a fellow who was a heroin addict was soon to be discharged from rehab. He and some of his friends decided to go out on the weekend and have a good time before his discharge day.”

Apparently, the addict’s celebration led him to take drugs again. “I was devastated. My preceptor taught me that this was not about me, and that I shouldn’t overpersonalize it.”

MISCONCEPTIONS: The Hawai‘i Kai resident says she does not participate with the police in criminal profiling, as portrayed in TV shows such as “Law & Order.”

“I interview individuals charged with a crime or who are involved in Family Court or civil litigation. Forensic psychologists review a lot of records. They have to be good writers, as well as good evaluators.”

NEW SKILLS: “I am especially appreciative of digital forensic experts, who are able to provide very important data about human behavior through the analysis of a person’s computer use, including postings on social media. Sometimes a single Facebook posting tells more about the person than hours of testing and forensic interviewing.”

NOTORIETY: In the ’80s, after speaking to the Mystery Writers of America in Los Angeles about her work, Kennedy became the basis for the fictional heroine – a forensic psychologist – in the book, “Sing Sweetly To Me,” by Barbara Pronin. 

PAY RANGE: “The pay varies. Individuals working for a state or federal agency are hired at civil service pay grades. In the private sector, the fee is set based on an hourly rate.”

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