Kathleen Zellner is one of the most successful trial lawyers in the United States. And she’s going to become a household name after Making a Murder season 2 follows her during Steven Avery’s post-conviction process. This Kathleen Zellner wiki looks at her life and her uphill battle of trying to exonerate Avery for the grisly 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach.
Kathleen Zellner, Competitive Trial Lawyer Who Rarely Loses
Known for winning unwinnable cases, Zellner has won multi-million-dollar medical malpractice settlements and freed innocent clients from death row. Feared as a fierce defense attorney, Zellner has taken on her highest-profile client yet: Steven Avery. She believes he’s innocent and she’s not going to stop until he’s freed.
Kicking butt in the courtroom comes naturally to Kathleen Zellner; she has been fiercely competitive, giving a voice to the voiceless and protecting the innocent since she was a child growing up in the small town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma in the 1950s.
Zellner was born May 7, 1957, to Owen Daniel and Winifred Thomas, in Midland, Texas, the second oldest of eight children. Her mother was a pediatric nurse and her father was a geologist and engineer for oil supermajor ConocoPhillips.
When she was little, Kathleen had a friend who lived across the street who kept a pet duck. Toothbrush was everything you’d think a pet duck would be: friendly, liked to eat wasps and paddle around a backyard kiddie pool.
Zellner was not as passive as Toothbrush. She ordered martial arts books from the back pages of comic books and studied judo and jujitsu in the privacy of her bedroom, away from the prying eyes of her mother. Eventually, Zellner put her training to work.
One day, a teenage boy grabbed Toothbrush and tossed him into a pen with hunting dogs, in a neighbor’s yard. Zellner, who was just eight at the time, jumped into action.
“Kathleen was so mad she went over and beat him up. She was fierce,” said her brother, John Hall Thomas, a defense attorney in New Orleans.
He remembers that Kathleen bloodied the boy’s nose as adults, no doubt hearing his squeals, ran over and pulled Kathleen off the battered boy.
“Nobody messed with Kathleen after that, I’m telling you,” Thomas added.
Zellner continues to channel that inner rage in an effort to protect those being mistreated.
“What drives me is the abuse of power—the bullying and the victim. I have such a strong reaction when I see people who can’t defend themselves,” she observed.
Kathleen Zellner Defends Unwinnable Cases
After graduating from Northern Illinois Law School in 1981, Zellner worked as an appellate clerk for one year. Then she worked for several big law firms, defending insurance companies and law schools.
Law is a double-edged sword, though; dealing with these clients gave Zellner an understanding of how medical malpractice cases operate. And the feeling that maybe it would make more sense for her to represent the victim.
This conviction helped Zellner start her own firm in 1990, and to only take on criminal cases where she thought her client was innocent. Today, medical malpractice cases make up around 90% of her practice.
She’s most famous, though, for getting those wrongfully convicted out of jail. On her law firm’s corporate Twitter page, she states they are the “#1 Law Firm USA for Freeing the Innocent.”
Law Offices of Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates
According to Zellner’s corporate website, her team of trial lawyers concentrates on “winning major civil rights violations, medical malpractice, prisoner abuse, criminal appeals, post-conviction, and habeas actions throughout the United States. We deal decisively and courageously with legal matters that profoundly affect the lives of people from all walks of life.”
Winning Against Improbable Odds
Zellner further notes on her website that, against improbable odds, she and her team of trial lawyers have a storied history of winning “groundbreaking judgements and verdicts—and tens of millions of dollars in damages—for clients from all walks of life.
“Ms. Zellner is the only attorney in the country to have won five multi-million dollar verdicts in less than a year. Equipped with a unique combination of extensive criminal trial experience, high-stakes civil litigation experience, and success in major medical malpractice and civil rights litigation, she and her staff have compiled an extraordinary track record in courts across the country. Our firm is in the business of fighting and winning.”
Kathleen Zellner Helps Those Who Need Help
”Defending corporations and helping Exxon or Shell Oil raise their stock price, most people find, over a lifetime, is not satisfying,” Zellner has said. “And that’s the wonderful thing about the legal profession. There are many people who need help, there are many creative ways to help them, and there are many causes that are extremely worthy of effort, and you can find something like that and devote yourself to it.”
While Zellner prefers to avoid a trial, vacate a conviction, and have her client walk…she’s not afraid to go head-to-head in the courtroom. In fact, Zellner’s famous for almost never losing. In 1999, for example, Zellner tried six cases, ”and they were all multimillion-dollar verdicts.”
Three of those cases involved medical malpractice: one was a civil rights case, one was a murder trial, and one was a rape trial. The five civil jury verdicts totaled $15.8 million.
”I think I’m the only person in the United States who has done this,” she said. ”I really didn’t have any choice, because I was made no offers on any of them and they were ready for trial.”
During her illustrious career, Zellner has won many cases that were considered unwinnable. This includes exonerating 17 men and winning approximately $110.0 million from wrongful conviction and medical malpractice lawsuits.
Zellner has coaxed 21 confessions from a serial killer, helped free four men convicted in the murder of a Chicago medical student, and defended Ryan Ferguson, a man who spent 10 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a Missouri murder.
In a 2013 interview, Zellner was asked what her most unusual accomplishment was.
“Obtaining the exoneration of Joseph Burrows, who was on death row with an execution date set. I was able to persuade the real murderer to confess to the murder on the witness stand at the post-conviction hearing.”
Zellner Awarded Many Accolades
Not surprisingly, Zellner has received many awards.
In 2000, the National Law Journal named her as one of the top 10 trial attorneys in the United States. The same publication named her one of the top women trial lawyers in the United States in 2001.
In 2012, Zellner received the American Bar Association’s “Pursuit of Justice” award. It is given annually to a maximum of four attorneys who have “shown outstanding merit and excelled in insuring access to justice.”
In 2014, Zellner was named Person of the Year by Chicago Lawyer, and she’s also been named in the top 100 trial lawyers by the American Trial Lawyer’s Association.
She has won awards for her pro bono work as well.
Zellner Was Outraged Watching “Making a Murderer”
Like millions of other Americans, Zellner watched Making a Murderer. Unlike most Americans, she watched it in her 3,000-square-foot home theater.
“When I watched the Avery case, I felt that the attitude toward him by the prosecutors and the state was that he was disposable. It was almost like a class thing. [His family] didn’t matter, they had no power,” Zellner said. “The longer I watched it, the more angry I got.”
In January 2016, Kathleen Zellner announced that she and Tricia Bushnell, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, were representing Steven Avery and looking to overturn his conviction for the killing of photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County.
On January 2, in a now-deleted tweet, Zellner said that “whoever deleted Teresa Halbach(‘s) cellphone calls is either the murderer or part o