Astonishing. Special. Gratifying. These are a few of the adjectives Federal Civil Rights Clinic attorneys Robert Harding ’22 and Elizabeth Nielsen ’22 used to describe earning a favorable verdict for their client in federal court. Although the decision was a great achievement for the students, they never lost sight of their mission to help the client.
“I’ve spent two years building a relationship with our client, Liz has spent a year building a relationship with our client. We know who he is, what his kid is up to, what’s going on, and we get to be that ear and that advocate for them that they don’t necessarily have ready access to,” Harding said. “To be able to bring this to fruition for him and validate what he’s been working towards for the last 6 or 7 years was really special.”
The case was brought by Emanuel Lollis, a former inmate at Western Illinois Correctional Center. In July 2016, on a hot day in the non-air-conditioned facility, Lollis had a disagreement with the correctional officers at the facility about the ice that was given out to help the inmates cope with the heat. As a result of the disagreement, several guards took Lollis from his unit to the restrictive housing unit. Along the way, Lollis was dragged, beaten, thrown into a doorway, and beaten again after arriving at restricted housing.
Lollis first brought his case to the court in 2016, representing himself. The Federal Civil Rights Clinic became involved in August 2020, when Harding was assigned to the case. A series of delays, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, delayed the case from its initial trial date in May of 2021. The delays continued, four in total, and Lazaro Aguiar ’21, Harding’s original partner on the case, graduated, opening room for Nielsen to join the team. The case was reassigned to the Honorable Magistrate Judge Eric Long and proceeded to a three-day jury trial on April 19.
On April 21, a jury of eight ruled against five of six defendants, all of whom served as correctional officers at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, for excessive use of force. The plaintiff was awarded damages totaling in excess of $50,000.
“Jury verdicts for the plaintiff are quite rare,” Professor Andrew Bequette, director of the Federal Civil Rights Clinic for more than a decade, said. “It is exciting that our narratives are starting to break through with central Illinois juries and it speaks volumes about how hard these students work on cases with incredibly challenging facts.”
The delays and other demands on Harding and Nielsen, including their course work, Moot Court, work on the Law Review, and other commitments, made the case more of a challenge. Harding said he feels more like an attorney than a student at this point, and taking this case to trial played a big part in that change.
“This is putting something real on things we’ve been doing for fake,” Nielsen explained. “We both took trial advocacy and trial advocacy workshop together, but it’s still fake: an isolated case file in a booklet. This is a real thing with real people on the other end, real defendants you’re there in the courtroom with, witnesses that you don’t know what they’re going to say.”
Both Harding and Nielsen have an additional case each that they will be trying in court for the Federal Civil Rights Clinic. Of course, both cases have been delayed until after their May graduation. After their experience with Lollis, though, both are ready to face another challenge for their clients.
“For us, winning against any defendant would’ve been a great bonus on top of just getting our client’s story told. Because to him that in itself is a huge part of the value of going to trial: telling what happened to him and having a jury of 8 citizens just hear him out,” Nielsen said.
The College of Law extends its congratulations to Harding and Nielsen for their win in court and thanks them, and everyone in the Federal Civil Rights Clinic, for their hard work on behalf of the clients.