CHAMPAIGN — Robert Harding and Elizabeth Nielsen have partnered on projects in the University of Illinois College of Law since Year 1.
The law students had done class briefs, moot court and trial team competitions together, never winning anything. That is, until they argued their first-ever trial in federal court last month — and earned their real client a favorable verdict from a real jury.
“We’ve built a strong working relationship over law school, and she was the perfect person to step in and do this with me,” Harding said. “We got to ride along one last time, and fortunately, we did it to a victory.”
Harding and Nielsen, who graduated from the law school in exactly one week, served as attorneys in its selective Federal Civil Rights Clinic, where pairs of students are assigned federal civil-rights cases in central Illinois.
The clinic, which only admits about eight students a year, offers the only chance for UI law students to get to argue jury trials before they graduate. It’s rare still for them to win.
In more than 50 cases the clinic’s student attorneys have taken, only five have resulted in favorable verdicts, said clinic director and adjunct Professor Andrew Bequette. The facts of these cases are often exceedingly challenging, he said.
“It’s a remarkable experience and it only works because of the support of the federal court, the clients’ desire to have representation and the students who put so much into it,” Bequette said.
“It’s their first case, so they throw everything they have into it.”
This particular case was first brought by Emanuel Lollis, a former inmate at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling.
In July 2016, he filed a lawsuit alleging he was beaten by correctional officers after a disagreement, and later that year, he decided to represent himself in court.
In August 2020, Harding was assigned the case along with his partner, Lazaro Aguiar.
Lollis’ case was delayed four times, mainly for pandemic-related reasons, usually just a few days before a trial was set to start.
In September 2021, Nielsen was assigned to the case after Aguiar graduated.
“Liz coming on was great,” Harding said. “She gave a whole new set of eyes and ears to listen to the client’s story. After hearing them for a year, you don’t hear some of the interesting things anymore.”
The pair prepared for the rest of the academic year until the April 19 trial.
After a three-day trial, the eight-member jury decided that five of the six defendants, all correctional officers, used excessive force against Lollis.
“The clinic doesn’t win a lot of these cases; no one wins a lot of these cases,” Nielsen said. “A lot of this is the facts are usually tough and there often isn’t a lot of evidence. We had evidence in this case.”
‘A Huge Victory’
To make their case to the jury, the law students tried to boil down the narrative to the crucial moments.
It was a hot summer day in the Western Illinois Correctional Center, and on hot days, inmates are given ice to help cool off.
Soon after then-inmate Lollis got in line for ice, a dispute began with one of the correctional officers about whether he could put drinking-fountain water into his jug of ice.
Their disagreement boiled over, resulting in several guards taking Lollis from his cell to the segregation housing unit of the facility, where prisoner privileges are taken away.
A combination of prison video footage and testimony revealed that on the way, Lollis was beaten, dragged and thrown into the corner of an exit door by the guards.
In a second video, Lollis was shown to be inexplicably naked in the hallway of the restricted housing area walking into a shower, another fact the team focused on.
“Normally, a strip search would be conducted in the shower, and he’d be handed new clothes,” Nielsen said. “We were able to clarify what is normal procedure for keeping the prisons safe, versus what was unusual in this situation that makes things look strange.”
During the three-day trial, Harding questioned their client on the stand, guiding Lollis through his story for about two hours.
While cross-examining the defendants, Nielsen was able several times to catch inconsistencies between the events the officers described in court versus what they said in prior depositions and incident reports.
Here’s one example: the beating of Lollis made for a bloody scene. Every defendant was required to get a blood test afterwards.
While on the stand, one defendant said he didn’t know where the blood came from. But in his deposition, the defendant stated the blood came from Lollis.
Nielsen pounced on the opportunity, walking through the officer’s testimony with a series of questions before bringing up a copy of the deposition and getting the defendant to admit that Lollis’ blood was found on him.
“That’s the big moment that can kind of derail you a little bit at trial: The witness says the thing they’re not supposed to say, or the thing you’re not expecting,” Harding said. “In the cross examination, we decided if we are going to win, we need to be more aggressive and be comfortable asking questions we may not know the answers to.”
“And our client was on board with that,” Nielsen added.
‘It was exhilarating’
The result: on April 21, the jury ruled against five of the six defendants for excessive use of force.
Lollis was awarded more than $50,000 in damages.
“Having talked to Lollis afterwards, he was surprised by how emotional he was,” Harding said.
The litigation is still active, so the defendants have the ability to file to change the verdict or ask for a new trial.
But the bulk of the work is done.
“With the way these cases usually go, getting over the trial hump is a huge victory, and if nothing else, it was an opportunity for our client to tell his story, to have the men who he believed hurt him come to the courtroom in front of the judge and jury, to look everyone in the eye and tell them what happened,” Harding said.
Both students said the trial experience affirmed their career aspirations and confidence.
“It was exhilarating,” Harding said.
Mock-trial teams and moot court can simulate the experience but can’t beat the real deal, they said.
“Going with a real case, you feel like, ‘Yes, I can do this. I’m going to be an attorney, and I’m going to be a good one,’” Nielsen said.
And there’s more on the way.
COVID-19 has backed up plenty of court cases, so Nielsen and Harding each have separate jury trials to prepare for in the next month.
Nielsen won’t have much time to celebrate his juris doctorate; she’ll be back in court three days after graduation.
“As I’m getting ready for my last final, I’m looking into this trial and trying to put just as much effort into it as I did this last one,” Nielsen said. “These cases are usually not successful, but this client deserves just as much of my attention.”