From Coroner to Courtroom
God only knows what she might have walked through at work that night, so Julie Wilson always slipped off her shoes at the front door.
Until this summer, first-year law student Wilson made her living as a Washington County deputy medical examiner. It’s a career the 38-year-old began in Los Angeles, where she worked cases for one of the nation’s busiest county coroner’s offices.
You better believe the job could get messy.
The first case Wilson investigated was a gang-related drive-by shooting. Her last investigation this July was of a “final exit suicide,” so-called because the decedent followed the method laid out in Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry’s “Final Exit.” In her 12 years as a coroner, Wilson investigated thousands of deaths.
It’s a grueling job, but one with a certain cachet given the slew of CSI knockoffs that hit the air right about the time Wilson began her career. Wilson herself was once the focus of an hour-long documentary that aired briefly on the Discovery Channel.
“Death, wholesale. That’s what she saw,” said Mary Wallace, the field director who followed her four days a week, 24 hours a day during filming of “‘C.I.: Coroner Investigator.’ She never flinched.
The Ohio minister’s daughter dreamed of law school, but as a single mom with a young daughter to support, Wilson needed a paying job, and quick. And, just as she’d hoped, death investigation provided intellectual stimulation and a middle-class lifestyle.
So why law school?
“I’ve had enough of this life,” Wilson said during a recent interview. Her daughter Felicia, who was born when Wilson was 19, is now 18. She’s headed to Oregon State University this fall to study marine biology.
Wilson actually started Willamette last fall on a modified full-time schedule while continuing to work as a medical examiner. She quickly wore down, and with the encouragement of Edward Harri, assistant dean for student affairs, Wilson put her studies on hold last spring.
“Willamette has won my loyalty as a student,” Wilson said. “It’s a special school, and they have special people who work there.”
This fall, her coroner days behind her and her daughter away from home, Wilson returned to class full time. She’s not sure yet what type of law she’ll pursue.
“Older students in general, myself included, add a more seasoned perspective,” Wilson said. “We see those nuances. My experience as a single mother for 18 years, as a professional death investigator, has allowed me to travel to emotional places that others haven’t.”
— Paige Parker