Last summer, I worked at a public service law office that specializes in public housing in Chicago. It was a great job, and I loved working on housing issues. (Also, I’m now able to give weirdly informative tours of the many disastrous public housing projects in Chicago, which is not actually something that most tourists are all that into when they come here for a visit. (Shocking, I know.) But hey, if you know anyone who wants the “south side/public housing special” tour, send them my way!) It was also the home of my first true law mentor, a woman in her late 30s who isjust about the coolest lawyer I have ever met who has spent her whole career working in public interest in Chicago and who also has a nice non-lawyer husband and a cool kid who she even manages to see every once in a while. Once I realized that I pretty much wanted to be her, I vowed to try to hear her thoughts as many things as possible, so I took her to lunch one day and asked her how she decided to do civil, not criminal, public service work.

“Well,” she said, “part of it was that I wanted to be involved in impact litigation, to make new law, and I saw a real opportunity to do that here.” I nodded. That made sense, this organization was known for its prominent role in the Chicago housing community.

“But mostly,” she said, “it was the photos. I took a criminal procedure class as a 2L and during one session the professor passed around a batch of really greusome crime scene photos and I had to excuse myself and leave the room. I couldn’t look at them. And I knew right then that I was destined for civil work. I guess I’m lucky, because that one class made the civil/criminal decision a really easy one for me. I think you can pretty much make the decision whether or not you can do criminal work when you see your first batch of awful crime scene photos.”

Well, yesterday, I saw my first batch of truly awful crime scene photos. I have been staffed on a new case at the clinic, in which we represent a female client (“Clienette”) who is charged with first degree murder in a brutal stabbing of another young woman. Both victim and Clienette were 17 at the time of the incident. We’ve had the case for 4 years, so my first job as the new kid on the case is to make my way through the files, trying to get up to speed on what’s happened so far.

There, while I was sorting through the many many duplicate copies of illegible police reports and dozens of not very helpful witness interview sheets and several error-riddled timelines, was a stack of photos, packaged in a cardboard envelope like the ones you’d get if you took your own snapshots for one hour development at Walgreens. And inside this normal-looking envelope were about 70 photos of the crime scene, including all the blood smears and droplets and the signs of strugle and shot after shot of this girl’s naked, slashed body, all in glossy 4×6. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly- gritty black and white 8 X 10s, perhaps?- but I certainly wasn’t expecting an innocuous little envelope like you’d get at MotoFoto to yield such graphic images.

The good news, (I guess,) is that I didn’t have to excuse myself and leave the room. So I guess I know that I can do criminal work if that’s what I want to do. But man, it was hard to get those images of this young woman’s mutilated body out of my head as I tried to fall asleep last night.