Law student Ben Ellis beats odds to win trials while an intern

November 03, 2011

When Ben Ellis tried his first felony case as a certified legal intern for the Cumberland County’s Public Defender (PD) Office, he had only eight days to prepare. Because the case was considered difficult and his client could face up to seven years of jail time if convicted, Ellis spent virtually every waking moment on the case. Ellis said he was able to uncover a witness who had not been interviewed previously. The information she provided led him to subpoena records from a title loan company and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation records that proved to the judge hearing the case his client’s innocence and that the victim had a hidden motive in bringing the charges.

“I have a passion for public service,” Ellis said. “Whether it is as a public defender ensuring that people who cannot otherwise afford an attorney get one, or as a prosecutor keeping the public safe from criminals, I know criminal law is what I want to practice,” he said.

First intern to do jury trial

Linda S. Hollinger, first assistant public defender, called Ellis “an asset to this office. He is the very first intern, I believe in the history of this office, permitted to do a jury trial.” Hollinger added that her office allowed it because Ellis already had won two bench trials and “because the client valued Ben and trusted him enormously … and against insurmountable odds, the client was acquitted.”

“In the jury trial, two prosecution witnesses were veteran state troopers who were unwavering,” Ellis said. “I went to the site and by taking video of the location from the officers’ point of view, I was able to persuade the jury that the lighting conditions could mislead someone into thinking a vehicle was on the road, when it actually was not,” he said. Since the charge was an on-road violation, the jury found in the defendant’s favor and his client, who would have faced a mandatory one-year sentence, was acquitted.

Ellis was hired for the internship with only his first semester’s grades to share. He has now served two summer internships as well as an externship with the office and both Ellis and his co-workers say from his first day on the job, he has been relentless in looking for cases to work on, including writing appellate court briefs.

Prep includes workshops

Ellis said that all of his first-year courses -- from evidence to professional responsibility -- prepared him for his internship but that he is now taking Professor Gary Gildin’s trial advocacy class, and “it is the most important class anyone can take for hands-on application.” He also was able to attend an appellate public defender’s program last March sponsored in part by the school and the Public Defender’s Trial Skills program held at the Law School in August.

“When Ben approached me about attending the programs I thought it was because he wanted to listen to the lectures and demonstrations,” Gildin said. Gildin explained that workshop participants are all practicing public defenders who bring actual cases from their offices before their peers and national experts who critique their presentations. “Ben wasn’t content to be a passive observer; he asked if he could bring a case for review. It takes a lot of moxie for a student to stand up and be critiqued by this group of experts,” he said.

Ellis also credits Judge Richard Lewis’ class, which focuses specifically on Pennsylvania criminal practice, and his mentors with his success. “Linda Hollinger, Mike Halkias (Deputy PD), and Tim Clawges (Chief PD), took me under their wing and explained how things work in Cumberland County,” he said. “This experience had been phenomenal; I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I don’t think there is another situation where someone would get to do a full-blown trial as a student. I feel honored."

Interns highly valued

Hollinger said the PD Office’s goal is to have four interns to help with the large case load and she tried to get interns courtroom experience right away. “Ben did an excellent job and is well-known and respected by the judges and DAs. Our interns probably don’t realize the important role they play in our office or how much help they provide and how much their work is valued.”

Hollinger sums up her experience with Ellis, “To give you an idea about Ben…he has an opportunity to intern with Justice Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but he didn’t want to pursue that because he felt he would be letting me down. I had to chase him out of here because I didn’t want him to miss the opportunity. We feel like with Ben, we have a lifelong friend and perhaps a co-worker someday.”

  • Ben Ellis interns at Cumberland County's Public Defender Office.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 22, 2015