Denise Childress’ clients have an interesting, if fictional, person to thank for piquing her interest in becoming an attorney: Nancy Drew.
The books featuring the teenage sleuth weren’t the only mystery series she read as a child, but the genre as a whole encouraged her passion for the criminal justice system.
While attending Truman State University, the native St. Louisan worked with the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office in Kirksville. Her experience there solidified her choice to become a criminal defense attorney.
“There was evidence I single-handedly uncovered that proved an alleged rape never took place,” she said. “So to help a client who was too poor to post bond and get out of jail, who missed one of his kids’ first steps because of something that never happened — I just really felt like I could have a positive impact on individual people’s lives.”
After graduating from Truman State University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in justice systems, she enrolled at Saint Louis University School of Law and graduated in May 2012. She previously worked for ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis-based, nonprofit civil rights firm, and as a state assistant public defender before joining Ward & Associates — later Ward & Childress — in St. Louis.
In 2016, Missouri Lawyers Media honored Childress as a law firm leader in its annual Up & Coming Awards. She now runs her own practice in St. Charles, focusing on criminal and DWI defense, after recently parting ways with long-time mentor and partner Carl Ward.
“He taught me everything I know, and we came to a point where it was time to fly on my own,” she said. “We parted amicably and still work together on cases. It’s nice that even being out on my own, I still have a good network of mentors I can rely on.”
Childress said she’s most proud of her ability to cross-examine law enforcement officers to ensure they’ve adhered to regulations and followed procedures correctly. While she takes on a variety of criminal cases, Childress said she has a particular interest in cases involving DWI charges.
“The neat thing about DWI law in particular . . . is the civil portion, where the department of revenue is trying to take your license. So this type of law is a unique area where we can really challenge the constitution without risk against the client.”
While she goes to trial often — sometimes every week for weeks on end — Childress is particularly proud of the outcome for a client who had been arrested by a police officer who was subsequently killed in a separate incident.
“That [was] awful. I feel for [the officer’s] family,” she said. “It was a tough road to make that unpopular argument that my client didn’t have an opportunity for confrontation and his day in court.”
Appellate-level judges ruled in her favor, stating that the trial court could not use the evidence produced by the deceased officer. The prosecution appealed, but she ultimately won. “I really got to stand up for my client,” she said.
Childress said she is aware of the occasional social stigma that accompanies the work of a criminal defense attorney, but she added: “I really kind of shake it off.”
“My standpoint is my job is to make sure that law enforcement officers do their job,” she said. “So when they come for you, they have to follow all of the rules, too.”