Kathleen Zellner is the feisty and outspoken appellate attorney for Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery.
With Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, obtaining initial vindication before a federal magistrate (although that decision was later overturned), all eyes turned to Zellner, who has filed major briefs in Avery’s post-conviction motion in the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.
Reporters and others interested in the case descended on the courthouse in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, waiting for news of one recent filing and hoping to spot Zellner, whose celebrity has grown since she signed onto the Avery case shortly after the first Netflix series came out. Season 2 streamed on October 19, 2018, and, although she has not been successful with her motions before a judge in state court, Zellner’s theories were showcased in it.
The federal magistrate judge overturned the conviction of Dassey, in part because of the way interrogators obtained contradictory confessions from the then cognitively challenged 16-year-old. The magistrate gave prosecutors 90 days to appeal or release Dassey. A federal panel agreed with the magistrate judge, but the full circuit upheld Dassey’s conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
However, Avery’s appeal is different. His case is in state court, not federal court. Zellner is a suburban Chicago attorney who began representing him after Netflix’s Making a Murderer garnered an international following. It showcased the trials of Avery and Dassey – who were both convicted in state court in the murder of Halbach, who had come to the Avery family junkyard to photograph a van.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Zellner Promised Big Revelations in the Case
Zellner has made it clear that she intends to prove Avery’s innocence, despite the complex forensic and circumstantial evidence against him. Newsweek says she watched the Netflix’ series in her 3,000-square-foot home theater and grew angry because she felt Avery was treated as disposable due to his class.
She told The New York Times, “she has a different person in mind who she believes killed Ms. Halbach” without naming that person, adding that she will request new DNA testing of the evidence, including tests not available when Avery was tried.
She told Newsweek she has “cellphone records that show Halbach left Avery’s property before she was killed.” She also claimed that, “Halbach made two calls to a phone number that belonged to a man recently charged with sex crimes in Arizona,” said Newsweek.
Zellner told The New York Times: “There is evidence that already exists in the case that points to a different location and a different suspect. We’ve got a combination of forensic evidence and a tip from somebody that we’ve interviewed multiple times that we think is credible.”
Zellner’s website pledges, “Our goal is to vacate Mr. Avery’s 2007 conviction and sentence.” It also solicits donations for his legal defense.
Avery’s past appellate attorneys had filed a brief that listed four people they said were alternative suspects in the case. The trial court did not allow them to present those theories in court, saying they had not offered any concrete evidence tying those people to the crime (other than the fact they were on the property that day and some had unsavory pasts). The Wisconsin appellate court upheld that trial court decision in the past. However, Zellner told the Times her suspect is someone new.
2. Zellner Frequently Tweets About the Case on Social Media, Including Posting Notes From Avery
On Twitter, Zellner has been passionately tweeting about the case, providing clues to her defense team’s approach. She also posts letters from Avery.
In one, he denied his former appellate attorneys’ accusations that some of his relatives might make plausible alternative suspects.
On social media, Zellner has given hints about the case, saying that Halbach left the Avery property and bringing up the old defense team theory that evidence was planted by law enforcement officers in the case, which they deny.
Here are more of Zellner’s recent tweets:
Zellner has also answered fans’ questions about Making a Murderer 2 and about the case on Twitter. You can read some of them here.
3. Zellner Has Made a Career Out of Getting Convictions Overturned
Zellner’s law firm website says: “Rewriting the ending for the wrongly convicted.” The oddity of the Steven Avery case is that he was wrongfully convicted – and spent years in prison – for a sexual assault he did not commit before the Halbach murder.
Chicago Magazine dubbed her “The Rescuer.”
Zellner has been an attorney for more than 26 years in the Chicago area. Newsweek says she has “secured the exoneration of 17 men and won almost $90 million from wrongful conviction and medical malpractice lawsuits.” The news magazine said she helped free four men convicted in the murder of a Chicago medical student. She also once got a killer to confess on the witness stand, freeing another man off death row.
She also defended Ryan Ferguson, who spent 10 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a Missouri murder.
The New York Times said Zellner sued Lake County, Illinois for a man named Jerry Hobbs who “spent five years in jail for killing his daughter and her friend; he was released last year after sperm found inside one of the girls was linked to a convicted rapist and accused murderer.”
She once represented a serial killer, Larry Eyler, trying to get him off death row, but, after he died, revealed he had confessed to her multiple times, Newsweek says.
4. Zellner’s Husband Is a Commodities & Bond Trader & She Likes Pistol Shooting
Law Crossing.com says it was Zellner’s husband who encouraged her to go to law school. The site says she also likes swimming and pistol shooting. Jessica Biel was supposed to play her in a movie based on the serial killer confessing to her.
“She worked for several big firms after graduating from Northern Illinois Law School and defended hospitals and insurance companies,” the article says, before she started her own law firm. She has received major awards as a lawyer, including from the American Bar Association.
The Columbian Blogs says she secured five multi-million dollar verdicts in a single year.
She declined to tell the reporters how much she earns. She made an analogy between trial work and race car driving, Law Crossing.com says.
Chicago Magazine says her husband, Robert Zellner, “held a post-doctorate fellowship in econometrics (he went on to be CEO of CitiCorp Futures Inc. and CitiCorp Options.” They have a daughter, Anne Zellner, who is a lawyer in Denver, says the magazine.
5. Zellner Was Born in Texas to a Geologist & a Pediatric Nurse
Chicago Magazine says Zellner was born May 7, 1957, to Owen Daniel and Winifred Thomas in Midland, Texas. She “was the second oldest of eight children,” said Chicago Magazine, adding that her mother was a pediatric nurse and her father was “a geologist and engineer for oil company ConocoPhillips.”
Zellner graduated in 1981 from Northern Illinois University College of Law and clerked for a 2nd District Appellate Court justice, Chicago Magazine said. She considered being a history professor instead of a lawyer, and once said she thinks women make better lawyers than men do.