Marcus Jackson/About Town: No argument about her prowess

Marcus Jackson/About Town: No argument about her prowess

URBANA — Sitting over a cup of Joe at the downtown Flying Machine Coffee shop, Elisabeth Pollock laughs about the time she argued with her husband about having that gruesome leg injury he suffered in high school re-evaluated.

In short, Christian Ray, Pollock's husband of 10 years, insisted he was fine, though he took up his wife's advice.

Turns out, all those years later, he needed surgery.

"Told ya so," Pollock told him.

She won that argument. She wins arguments all the time. It's just what she does.

Oh, there was another argument Pollock won with Ray about six years ago when she was pregnant with the couple's first child. They were at an Illinois basketball game, arguing about whether the child's last name would be Pollock or Ray.

"I was like, 'This kid's name should be Pollock. I am the one squeezing this child out. Clearly there needs to be a Pollock in there somewhere,'" she recalled telling him. "We were battling about that and at one point this guy wearing overalls in front of us turns around and goes, 'Sonny, just give it up.' And I was like 'Yeah, that's right. Give it up.'"

She won that one, too. Their children, 6-year-old Gabriel and 3-year-old Tristan, have hyphenated last names: Pollock-Ray.

* * * * *

The gift of squabbling is something that's been with Pollock most of her life.

"If you ask my mother, she'll tell you since I was about 6," she said. "I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 6 primarily because everyone said I had a big mouth and I argued well."

That's after initially wanting to be a veterinarian.

"I realized you have to take science and I was like 'Forget that,' " she said.

Apparently, Pollock made the right choice. The 35-year-old has been working the last 41/2 years as an assistant federal public defender for the Central District of Illinois. It's not a job you take on if the goal is to win most — or even any — cases.

"The federal prosecutors are very selective with the cases that they bring and it is extremely rare for the federal prosecutor to pick up a case if they're not guaranteed a victory," Pollock said.

It had been at least 20 years since a public defender from the Central District had won a case in federal court. That is, until last month, when Pollock scored an acquittal for one of her clients.

"I was shocked when (the verdict) came out. I hadn't heard those words in almost five years. When I was in state practice, I heard them more often," Pollock said. "When I heard (not guilty), I was surprised, but elated because I think it was the right result. This is not a person who needed to go to prison."

The winning case involved a woman who was charged with theft of government property and involved the misuse of Social Security benefits. The defendant, according to Pollock, had clearly received benefits she wasn't entitled to, but she also had mental health issues. Pollock presented a defense of diminished mental capacity, arguing her client could not form the intent to steal.

"She didn't know what she was doing was improper," Pollock said. "It's a specific intent crime so she has to knowingly and intentionally take the money against the law. She really did struggle with her mental health and it wasn't right. I felt gratified that it was the result we got for her; it was the right outcome."

* * * * *

Campaigning for social justice is something that was instilled in Pollock growing up in the home of her parents, Michael and Renee Pollock.

"My parents are unique. I was educated very early in matters of social justice and they focused on making sure I understood the world around me," Pollock said. "They provided me with a lot of different experiences and made me try everything. They were supportive."

Pollock is a 1999 graduate of Urbana University High. As a 15-year-old, she and schoolmates from a history class took a trip to Mississippi where Pollock was exposed to real poverty for the first time.

"That was the defining moment for me in becoming a public defender," she said. "I learned what people face when they don't have any money."

As a federal public defender, Pollock is usually dealing with clients who have lengthy criminal histories with multiple convictions. She spends time with them, visits them in jail, gets to know their families.

"I do the job because I think it's right and unfortunately by the time someone gets to me, there isn't a lot I can do, but it's an important step in the process that somebody has someone like me, and I think we get a bad rap because people think we're overworked, overburdened and we can't do a good job," Pollock said.

* * * * *

On Tuesday, a casually dressed Pollock was on her way to visit about a half-dozen clients in jail at various locations in the Central District that stretches from Kankakee to Coles County.

A star basketball and volleyball player at Uni, Pollock describes herself as hyper-competitive. She continued her athletic career at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where she was just elected to the school's athletic hall of fame for her prowess on the volleyball court.

"I hit balls hard in peoples' faces," she said.

But having been so successful in athletics made it somewhat difficult to enter a courtroom on a regular basis knowing the outcome isn't going to be victory. She had to redefine what a win was.

"My definition of a win is: Did I get a result that was a better result than someone else would have gotten? Did the client feel well-represented? Did the client get a sentence that is reasonable? Because sometimes federal law beats the crap out of people. Is the client satisfied? Did I win an issue? Did I win an argument?" she said. "I'm not going to define winning as getting a not guilty every time because to be fair that's not going to happen again for a while. I'm still going to gun for it."

Pollock comes across as someone you would enjoy sharing a beer with. But she didn't go to a local pub to pop bottles in celebration after last month's win. She went home, to be with her kids.

"My husband also has a big job. He's the director of the general chemistry program at the UI and he teaches and has his own responsibilities," said Pollock, who also teaches at the UI College of Law, where she earned her own law degree. "Yet, he ends up doing the majority of the child care because I'm so busy, so when I can I try to be home with the kids because there's a lot of times when I'm not."

She was active in volleyball at the park district level (she and Christian met as members of the same recreational team) and with USA Volleyball in the Great Lakes Region before a pair of knee injuries resulting in surgeries prevented her from continuing.

"I wanted to try MMA for a minute because I thought I'd be good at it, but I don't think my knees could take it," she said. "Boxing, I know there's a gym that opened up. I do circuit training and I do box a little bit. There's nothing like being on a court and just hitting a ball in someone's face."

And rare as it might be, there's nothing like hearing the words "not guilty" from a judge in a federal court room.

Marcus Jackson is The News-Gazette's community reporter. Follow him on Twitter (@MarcusJ_NG) or contact him by email (mjackson@news-gazette.com) or phone (217-351-5604).

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