Making a Murderer Season 2: Who is Kathleen Zellner? What were her other cases?
Netflix’s Making a Murderer gives Kathleen Zellner a prominent role in the second outing of the documentary series, as the attorney fights to overturn Steven Avery’s conviction for murder.
In 2015, viewers around the world became familiar with Steven Avery’s 2007 murder trial thanks to Netflix’s Making a Murderer. The docuseries was a labour of love for its creators, the filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, who spent a decade following the trial and developing material for their true crime saga.
The final episode of the first season showed us the failed attempts of both Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey to win new trials for their convictions. Plenty has happened since it aired almost three years ago, including the involvement of Kathleen Zellner: an advocate who specialises in wrongful convictions.
With many of us excited to see how Avery and Dassey’s fortunes have progressed since season one, a lot of focus is being drawn towards the outspoken lawyer fighting his corner. So who is Kathleen Zellner? What’s her legal history, and what have some of her other cases been?
Who is Kathleen Zellner, the new lawyer in Making a Murderer season 2?
Born in Texas in 1957, she decided to become a lawyer at the insistence of her husband Robert Zellner, a private stock trader. The two met while they were both studying at Montreal’s Concordia University: Kathleen was working towards her B.A. in English and History, whilst Robert was finishing his PhD in Economics.
She obtained her law degree from Northern Illinois University in 1981 and a profile on Zellner in the American Bar Association Journal from 2002 states that she began her legal career clerking for U.S. District Judge George W. Lindberg in Chicago before moving onto a small firm with a focus on plaintiff and criminal defence work. After two years there, she went to work for Hinshaw & Culbertson, a Chicago firm known for defending insurance companies, where she represented hospitals in medical malpractice cases.
Eventually, she set up her own firm, The Law Offices of Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates, in 1991, focusing on civil rights violations, criminal appeals and cases of medical malpractice, amongst other work. According to the description on its website: “Our firm is in the business of fighting and winning.”
She had developed a reputation as a very well-respected advocate long before her involvement in the Steven Avery trial. Speaking to the ABA Journal in 2002, one of Zellner’s former Hinshaw colleagues, E. Michael Kelly, described her as “very detail-driven” and observed that “she doesn’t waste a lot of time on silly motions and she tends to have a pretty good idea of what a case is worth. With Kathleen there’s no wasted energy and no phony toughness.”
A 2018 profile on the Super Lawyers website, states that Zellner’s firm has collected “approximately $110 million in total verdicts and settlements” since it was established.
What were Kathleen Zellner’s other cases before Steven Avery?
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According to a statement on her firm’s website, “In 23 years, Kathleen T. Zellner has righted more wrongful prosecutions than any private attorney in America.”
One of Zellner’s most high-profile cases prior to her involvement with Steven Avery came in 2009 when she began working, pro bono, for Ryan W. Ferguson. Ferguson had been wrongly convicted of murdering Kent Heitholt in 2005, aged just 17. In 2013, the original conviction was vacated and Ferguson was released from prison after Zellner helped to establish that the prosecution withheld evidence from Ferguson’s defence team.
A crucial turning point in Ferguson’s case came when Zellner and her team convinced the only two eyewitnesses to confess that they had lied during Ferguson’s trial. Remarkably, this is not the first time Zellner and her firm have achieved such a feat. In 1994, she helped Joseph Burrows be released from death row after convincing the real perpetrator to confess to the murder during a post-conviction hearing.
As Zellner herself reminisced in a written statement to NBC’s Dateline, this was achieved, “by asking her to do the right thing and have a conscience. It took over 50 prison visits to accomplish this feat.”
Other previous high-profile cases successfully overturned by Zellner & Associates include:
- The Roscetti case. In 2001, Zellner won the release of four men who had been in prison since 1987 after a wrongful conviction of raping and murdering medical student Lori Roscetti. The charges were dropped after new DNA tests showed no match between the men and pre-existing DNA evidence.
- Kevin Fox. In 2004, Fox was falsely arrested for the murder of his daughter Riley. Zellner persuaded the State’s Attorney to allow a DNA test which proved Fox’s innocence.
- Jerry Hobbs. Hobbs had been wrongly convicted of the murder of his daughter and her friend in 2005. He spent five years in prison before a DNA match proved the identity of the real murderer. Zellner helped Hobbs after his release from prison, winning a civil rights settlement for $7,750,000.00.
- Billy Wardell. Wardell and his friend Donald Reynolds were wrongly convicted for the rape and attempted rape of two female University of Chicago students. Zellner entered the case in 1996 and, in 1997, had the charges against both men successfully dropped after full DNA testing – absent from the original trial – was conducted.