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Pathbreaking transgender attorney Danyel Joffe’s work led to Colorado law compensating people wrongly convicted of crimes

Joffe, who died last month, relentlessly pursued DNA testing to free a man after 16 years in prison and sparked a change in the state's criminal justice system

Robert Dewey, second from left, speaks to the media moments after being released from the Colorado Department of corrections in Grand Junction, Colo., after serving a life sentence for murder. Dewey was released Monday, April 30, 2012, after spending nearly 16 years in prison. Flanking Dewey are attorneys Jason Kreag, left, and Danyel Joffe. (Photo by William Woody.)
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When Danyel Joffe took her last breath on a Sunday in July, she was sitting on her couch at home with Smudge, her beloved cat, on her lap and her computer open in front of her. She had been studying the cases of some of the defendants she was representing.

That was pure Joffe. The 58-year-old Denver attorney devoted her life and her legal career to those who otherwise might not have had a voice in the courtroom. She was known to spend long hours, including weekends, examining every angle of these cases before she filed a motion or walked into a courtroom. Working with a kitty was a bonus: Joffe was well-known for her deep love for cats.

Robert Dewey and the case that put Joffe on the map

Joffe’s life, and now her death on July 29, 2018, might have gone mostly unnoticed.

But that changed in 2012, when Joffe became the first lawyer in Colorado to successfully have the sentence of an innocent man overturned based on DNA evidence. Her client, Robert Dewey, had been convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of a young Palisade woman and imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole. He had spent 16 years in prison when Joffe’s legal work led to an exoneration.

Joffe worked 11 years to make that happen. During that time, she traveled to New York to persuade the Innocence Project to fund the retesting of Dewey’s DNA. She made countless visits to the Colorado Department of Corrections prison where Dewey was held. She knocked on doors in the seedy neighborhood where the murder had taken place. She methodically changed the minds of all those who believed Dewey was guilty, including prosecutors, Dewey’s former defense attorneys, the Colorado Attorney General and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Joffe could have made a lot of enemies in her dogged pursuit of proving Dewey’s innocence. Instead, she made a lot of friends.

“To Danyel’s credit, she never came across as adversarial on this, which is different,” Mesa County Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle said at the time. “I had a better working relationship with her on this reinvestigation than I’ve had with virtually any other defense attorney.”

Joffe’s work on the Dewey case had wider ramifications. The landmark case led to the Colorado Legislature passing a law that created a statewide fund to compensate the wrongly convicted.

The case cast Joffe into the public spotlight. She was pictured in newspapers and in newscasts raising clasped hands with Dewey on the front steps of the Mesa County Justice Center. She was named Lawyer of the Year by Law Week Colorado, and one of Colorado’s Top Thinkers of 2012 by The Denver Post.

Her sister Andrea Joffe was not surprised.

“The things she did, she did full-blast,” Andrea explained. “The effort she put into that and into everything was just immense.”

Danyel Joffe’s three decades of legal work did not draw many other headlines. But it affected many lives. She began her law career as a rural prosecutor in Delta County taking the cases of sexually abused children. She later moved into representing those charged with crimes. She worked as a court-appointed defense attorney.

“Danyel was a guardian angel for my daughter,” a long-ago client wrote in an online tribute to Joffe.

“To save one person from a miserable fate is extraordinary, Mr. Dewey was not her only victory, she had many,” wrote Bert Nieslanik, a lawyer who helped defend Dewey.

Joffe’s mother, Syma Joffe Gerard, said her daughter had a strong focus on advocating against the harshness of the prison system, especially toward people of color. She fought against the judicial system when it meted out overly harsh sentences.

Robert Dewey, center, uses burning sage to treat his attorney Danyel Joffe moments after being released from the Colorado Department of Corrections in Grand Junction, Colo., on April 30, 2012. (File photo by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Attorney Danyel Joffe, left, walks her client, Robert Dewey, center, out of the Mesa County Courthouse in Grand Junction, with Innocence Project attorney Jason Kreag, right. (File photo by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Aunt convinced Joffe law was a more noble profession than radio

Joffe went into law that focused on the disenfranchised because of an aunt, Debra Greenblatt, who was an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, representing clients who were disabled and mentally ill. Greenblatt mentored her niece until she died in 2005, on the same date as Joffe and at the same age of 58.

It was Greenblatt who convinced Joffe of the good she could do with a law degree – rather than pursuing her earlier dream of becoming a radio broadcaster. Joffe had founded a radio station, KLTZ, at the living room table of her family home when she was 12-years old. That radio dream persisted well into her career as a legal savior in tough cases.

“She took on cases that a lot of other attorneys would not have bothered with,” said Sheri Gidan, her longtime assistant and paralegal.

But then, Joffe was not your typical attorney in other notable ways.

She struggled through law school at the University of Denver but earned the top score in her class on her bar exam — despite her lifelong struggle with an autism-spectrum disorder and dyslexia. Those challenges made it hard for her to read and, at times, tough for others to appreciate her quirky humor or follow her finely honed logic.

“She had a truly amazing ability to concentrate and focus, but there were some things like reading maps she really struggled with,” said her mother, who switches between referring to Joffe as “he” or “she,” depending on what period of time she is referring to.

Prison visits with Dewey went from a business suit and tie to a dress and pearls.

Joffe was transgender. She began her law career as Douglas Joffe. She became Danyel Joffe in the midst of her work on the Dewey case. She had been visiting Dewey in prison for three years in a business suit and tie, Dewey said. All of a sudden, she showed up in a dress and pearls.

“I saw the whole metamorphosis and I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, can I take her seriously?'” said Dewey, who is now running a motorcycle shop in Sarcoxie, Missouri. “But she helped me out. I trusted her judgment. I am very grateful for having met her.”

Joffe had heart problems in her last year or so of life. She had twice taken herself to urgent care with irregular heartbeats. She had a stent placed in one of her clogged arteries. She had suffered from fatigue and repeated illness. She lately had also been deeply mourning the death of her other beloved cat, Furball. If Joffe knew how serious her health problems were, she didn’t mention it to her family, not even her physician sister, Lynn Joffe.

In the past year, she also had been working toward realizing her dream of physically transitioning. Gidan said she had been setting up appointments for Joffe so she could get the necessary sign-offs from her physicians for gender-confirmation surgery.

Joffe’s transgender status didn’t hurt her law career. Gidan said new clients who came to Joffe’s office in a Capitol Hill Victorian were sometimes put off by her appearance: she was 6-feet, 1-inch tall, and, when she lived as a man, could have been called “burly.” Clients got over that, Gidan said, when they realized how brilliant she was.

She had steadfast friends in the transgender community, the Jewish community, and in the realms of her many special interests; comedy, cats, old-time radio shows, sci-fi, theater and the Denver Broncos.

“I called Doug my friend for 37 years, and Danyel for an additional 10 years,” wrote one of her old friends Michael Schwarz. He had been planning to move to Denver this year so the two friends could spend more time together.

When Joffe died, her wide-ranging interests were displayed like a tableau in her townhouse. There were scads of sci-fi books, and files of maps and travel articles indicating where she hoped to visit next. There was a photo of her hugging a white tiger on her most recent trip to an animal sanctuary in Iceland.

There was her Bible with a Jewish prayer of mourning tucked in the front, and her ceremonial prayer shawl, which had just come back from the cleaners. It was hanging in plastic ready for services. There was an overwhelming amount of Broncos memorabilia and an assortment of cat food large enough to feed dozens of felines.

Andrea is now caring for Smudge. Syma took her daughter’s shawl back to Long Island so she can wear it while she prays for her. Joffe’s active cases are being parsed out to other attorneys. Stories are being shared by those who experienced her uniqueness.

At her memorial service, Rabbi Howard Hoffman, who had known Joffe for 40 years, used her passing as a lesson in acceptance – acceptance of those in need, and of those who are different.

He used an analogy of a book, saying that the soul is the inside of the book. One just needs to get past the cover to see the soul. Whoever looked past Joffe’s cover, Hoffman told the mourners, found a good soul.

Attorney Danyel Joffe sits with her client Robert Dewey, second from left, moments after being released from the Colorado Department of Corrections in Grand Junction, after spending nearly 16 years in prison. (File photo by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the date of the crime for which Robert Dewey was convicted was incorrect in the version of this obituary for attorney Danyel Joffe that published on Aug. 24, 2018, in The Sunriser newsletter. Jacie Taylor, 19, was murdered in Palisade in 1994.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here: cosun.co/thesunriser