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 of (the) coverup. Either way the killer is free.”
While we don’t know exactly whom Zellner is speaking of, Halbach’s former boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas, who helped search for Halbach, testified that he had access to her voice messages, and some were deleted after she vanished. He was never accused of any wrongdoing and did not face any charges.
He may eventually be under the microscope, though.
In July 2017, Zellner filed a motion, noting that only one person had a motive, opportunity, and connection to the murder of Teresa Halbach: Ryan Hillegas. The pair had an abusive history—he was angry that they had broken up and she’d had a sexual relationship with her housemate; he misled investigators; he has no alibi for October 31, 2005, the day Halbach was murdered; he had visible injuries to his hands, including fingernail scratches; he knew the password to her cellphone and messages had disappeared; he had unfettered control over her belongings; and he seemed eerily well-informed as to where Teresa’s body would be located.
Perps and Planters
There are some compelling reasons why Steven Avery is in jail for the murder of Teresa Halbach, namely:
- Halbach was at the Avery property to take photos of a maroon van
- He was the last confirmed person to see her alive
- Her charred remains were found on his property
- Her car key was found in his home
- A bullet with her DNA was found in his garage
It’s not exhaustive, but it’s telling. This certainly doesn’t deter Zellner. In fact, she relishes the chance of turning the police’s evidence against them.
“If you think of the concept of using your opponent’s strength against them, it’s kind of similar to a lot of the stuff I’ve done.”
Zellner maintains that Manitowoc police planted evidence against Avery, and she hopes to reveal that deceit using physical clues she believes they left behind.
“They used forensic science to convict [Avery], and I’d be using it to convict them of planting the evidence.”
“One thing perps & planters have in common is leaving their signatures at the crime scene. Science always transcribes. #MakingAMurderer,” Zellner said in another now-deleted tweet back on February 1, 2016.
In an August 17, 2018 tweet, Zellner called Manitowoc police “lab rats” and “forensic frauds” for planting evidence and accused them of framing Avery.
“ It’s not the science it is WHO is doing the science” that must be exposed in every wrongful conviction case. #GilchristSyndrome #LabRats #ForensicFrauds @lifeafterten @michellemalkin #MakingAMurderer
— Kathleen Zellner (@ZellnerLaw) August 17, 2018
Why Zellner Thinks Steven Avery Is Innocent
There are a lot of things about the Steven Avery trial that just don’t add up for Kathleen Zellner. Specifically, all the evidence investigators seem to have willfully ignored in their efforts to finger Avery as the killer:
- Mysterious phone calls made to Halbach’s cell phone in the weeks before her murder
- The unusually limited DNA testing done in the investigation
- Two phone calls made from Halbach’s phone to a man arrested in December 2015 on sex abuse charges
“We’ve got access to documents the public doesn’t have. We’ve got all the police reports, we can see exactly what they did and did not do,” Zellner said. “And it’s a lot more about what they did not do.”
Cellphone Records Show Halbach Left Avery’s Property before Murder
The biggest piece of evidence Zellner says she uncovered is the cellphone records that show Teresa Halbach left Steven Avery’s property before she was murdered. A fact Avery’s defense team neglected to bring up at trial.
According to the state, Avery shot Halbach in his garage and then burned her body in a pit on the family’s salvage yard.
“So it’s absolutely shocking to see cellphone records that were part of the discovery that were turned over to the defense…document her route leaving the property. She goes back the same way she came, she’s 12 miles from the property on the last ping,” Zellner said.
Zellner also believes that Avery’s defense team didn’t realize that daylight saving time ended on October 30, 2005—the day before Halbach was murdered—and that not all cell phones reset automatically. This means the timeline for two independent witnesses who recall seeing Halbach leave the Avery property…was off by an hour.
Glaring Mistakes Made by Incompetent Investigators
Kathleen Zellner believes investigators made a large number of glaring mistakes.
1) October 29, 2005. Two days before Halbach was murdered, at around 11:45 p.m., she made two calls to a phone that belonged to a man since charged with sexual crimes in Arizona. For Zellner, any “well-trained investigator” would have been all over that. Not only that, they would have gone and talked to him and interviewed other people she spoke to right before her murder.
“She’s like prey being stalked,” she said. “And that’s [the most likely type of] person who would have been after her.”
2) Strange phone calls. Thomas Pearce, a friend who shared his photography studio with Halbach, remembers her getting numerous phone calls she refused to answer. She received those calls in the early summer to midsummer. There was a lull, but then the calls started to come in again just three weeks before she was murdered.
According to Zellner, police did not investigate these mysterious phone calls.
“You don’t just get information like that and file it,” she said. “What investigation was done? None. There was no effort to trace those calls.”
3) Scarce DNA tests. Another example of lazy investigation, Zellner maintains, is the small number of DNA tests conducted by police in Manitowoc County. They only did 12—all focused on members of the Avery, Dassey, and Halbach families.
In a previous case, Zellner exonerated a Missouri man, Ryan Ferguson, who did 10 years in prison for being falsely convicted of killing a newspaper editor. In that case, police conducted DNA tests on approximately 40 people. Everyone who was interviewed gave a sample of their DNA.
“I’ve never seen this before in a case where they kept it so close to Avery, just his family,” she said.
4) Blood samples. Many people believe the police framed Avery by planting his blood in Teresa Halbach’s Rav4. In 1985, Avery was wrongfully convicted of first-degree sexual assault, false imprisonment, and attempted first-degree murder. He was given 32 years and had to provide a blood sample. Avery’s advocates believe police took a sample of his blood from a vial at the Manitowoc court clerk’s office and planted it in Halbach’s SUV.
But, critics say, any blood from that vile would contain EDTA, a blood preservative. An FBI agent who testified at Avery’s murder trial said tests showed no EDTA in the blood evidence taken from the vehicle.
There is evidence the FBI blood test was rushed and an independent test of the blood that revealed EDTA could force a retrial.
Never Underestimate Kathleen Zellner
Zellner has an uncanny ability to win unwinnable cases. Lawyers who have had the misfortune of facing her in the courtroom caution Wisconsin prosecutors to not underestimate her. If you bluff her, she will call you out.
“She’s smart as the dickens and skilled, skilled, skilled,” said Robert Smith, the attorney who defended Illinois’ Will County when Zellner sued and got a father, Kevin Fox, exonerated for murdering his three-year-old daughter, Riley.
“She makes use of all 52 cards and both jokers if you’re in the courtroom with her.”
Kathleen Zellner is a ruthless lawyer who has overturned more guilty convictions than any other private U.S. law firm. And right now, she’s Steven Avery’s best chance for freedom.