Who is Kathleen Zellner? Meet the lawyer representing Steven Avery in Making a Murderer Part 2

The Chicago-based lawyer specialises in overturning wrongful convictions, and becomes a key figure in season two of the hit Netflix true crime series

Steven Avery's new lawyer Kathleen Zellner features in the first trailer for Making a Murderer: Part 2 (Netflix)

Without Kathleen Zellner, there almost certainly would be no Making a Murderer Part Two.

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After season one was released in late December 2015, filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos wondered what more there was to say about the case of Steven Avery.

Viewers had been transfixed by this story of a Wisconsin man who, barely two years after overturning his wrongful conviction for attempted murder, had been charged with the brutal murder of local photographer Teresa Halbach.

The show became a Netflix phenomenon – but where could it go next? After all, at the end of the series Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were serving life sentences. Avery had no legal representation, and his appeals had seemingly been exhausted.

In January 2016, Kathleen Zellner agreed to take Avery’s case.

The Chicago-based lawyer is one of the most successful postconviction attorneys in the United States, and once she agreed that the Netflix series could film her in action, a second season was in play.

“She doesn’t work the case from behind her desk,” co-director Demos tells RadioTimes.com “She goes out there, she gets her hands on the evidence, she goes to the crime scene, she zealously advocates for her clients. So it felt like there was going to be something happening.”

Indeed, in Part Two Zellner becomes the main driving force behind the episodes, as the cameras document her investigating the original case against Avery and looking for weaknesses that may lead to his exoneration.

Who is Kathleen Zellner?

Kathleen Zellner has overturned 19 wrongful convictions since starting her law firm in 1991, making her one of the most successful postconviction lawyers working in the United States.

Her high profile cases have put her in front of the cameras on numerous occasions, but in agreeing to be filmed for Making a Murderer, her work is about to be seen by a whole new audience.

The filmmakers recognised that Zellner’s status as a postconviction lawyer would make Making a Murderer Part Two very different to the first part.

“One of the things we learned early on about Kathleen’s character is that she’s taking the case at the postconviction stage,” Ricciardi says. “What that means is her client is challenging his conviction and his sentence, and her goal is to win his freedom. To potentially prove his innocence and restore his reputation.

“That’s the threshold issue for her: when she decides to take a case at the postconviction stage, her question is does she believe in the person’s innocence? She doesn’t want to free someone who actually committed the crime.”

What are some of Kathleen Zellner’s previous cases?

Zellner’s case history includes a number of high profile wrongful conviction cases.

In 1994, Zellner represented convicted murderer Joseph Burrows in a postconviction hearing. He had been sentenced to death, but during the case Zellner convinced the real murderer to confess to the crime on the witness stand. Burrows walked free.

More recently, in November 2017 Zellner was also the lawyer who secured the release of Darryl Fulton, who had served almost 25 years in prison after being convicted of rape and murder. DNA testing linked the crime to a serial rapist, and Fulton was exonerated.

Zellner is also representing an abuse survivor of convicted child molester and former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar. She filed a lawsuit for the case in September 2018.

Kathleen Zellner (left) with Darryl Fulton (centre) and his family after he was released from prison: Fulton has spent 8,607 days in prison after a 1994 wrongful murder and rape conviction (Getty)
Kathleen Zellner (left) with Darryl Fulton (centre) and his family after he was released from prison: Fulton spent 8,607 days in prison after a 1994 wrongful murder and rape conviction (Getty)

How did Steven Avery hire Kathleen Zellner?

The first episode of Making a Murderer Part Two reveals how Avery secured the services of Kathleen Zellner. He had first heard about her after watching a TV show about innocent people in prison.

“I never heard of a lawyer who got so many people out,” Avery tells the filmmakers over the phone.

After watching the show, it was Avery’s former fiancée Sandy Greenman who first approached Zellner on his behalf, all the way back in January 2012.

“I don’t think I stopped after that,” Sandy says.

The pair both continued to petition the lawyer – initially to no avail.

Why did Kathleen Zellner take Steven Avery’s case?

The documentary shows that it was only after watching Making a Murderer that Zellner decided that she would take Avery’s case.

Four years after first being approached, she wrote to Avery’s friend Sandy telling her that, having watched the series, she believed that she had “the experience and ability to get Steven’s conviction vacated”.

Filmmaker Ricciardi says that Making a Murderer was certainly a factor in Zellner’s decision.

“I think because she was able to watch ten episodes about one prospective client, it definitely gave her a window into his situation and helped her decide whether or not she wanted to represent him,” Ricciardi says.

“When she saw it, she said that Steven’s reaction to the reading of the guilty verdicts is what persuaded her to take the case. She had such a response to him at that moment, and went into work the next day and told her clerks to get her the file.”

The Crown - Matt Smith, Peter Morgan, Claire Foy - Writer/Creator Peter Morgan with Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II) (Netflix, TL)

In the documentary, Chris Nerat, a friend of victim Teresa Halbach, questions Zellner’s motivations for taking the case. “If this wasn’t a high profile case I highly doubt that she would be working on it,” he claims.

Have the filmmakers considered whether Zellner only took the case because of the notoriety generated by their documentary?

“It would be speculation to think that played in, because she’s very focussed on the work itself. I think she sees a value in her choice to let us in to the process,” Moira Demos says.

“I think from her perspective, the more people who understand how it works and understand what she’s up against, and how things play out, is just better for her: for all of her clients, and for her life’s work.”

What has Katherine Zellner done in the Steven Avery case?

Zellner’s first act was to file a motion in January 2016 claiming that Avery was denied the right to a fair trial.

Then in August 2016 she arrived in person at the Manitowoc County Courthouse with a motion requesting that additional testing be done on items recovered from the crime scene. She claimed it was “the most comprehensive testing motion ever filed in the state of Wisconsin and probably one of the most comprehensive motions ever filed in the United States”.

In June 2017 she filed a petition for Avery citing new evidence and constitutional violations, and requested a new trial. This request was denied in October, but Zellner claimed she had further evidence to present to the court.

Zellner’s latest dramatic move came in July this year, when she filed a 599-page motion requesting that new evidence be brought in Avery’s latest appeal against his conviction for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

The evidence includes a CD containing downloaded information from a computer in the Dassey household, which Zellner said contains thousands of images of sexual violence against young women. Zellner suggests that the evidence was withheld from Avery’s original defence team, and could implicated another suspect in the murder.

What does Making a Murderer tell us about Kathleen Zellner?

“It’s incredibly systematic, and clearly effective,” Demos says of Zellner’s method, having followed her in the Avery case since 2016.

The series shows her conducting her own investigations on the Avery property, reappraising police evidence, and even developing her own crime scene reconstructions, including buying the same model of car as the victim Teresa Halbach.

Ricciardi says that it is her “scientific approach to to the evidence” that becomes most clear in the documentary.

“There’s a scene you’ll see later in the series where she sits down with a former FBI agent, and that’s the sort of thing that they talk about,” Ricciardi says. “They talk about this idea of doing a ‘victimology’, trying to understand the victim close to the end of her life. Who was in her life at that time? What were those relationships like?

“It’s not about prying or anything, but it’s about taking a more objective approach to the evidence and not focussing on a particular suspect. Trying to take the emotion out of it, trying to consider all of the evidence, and just approaching it in a much more scientific way.”

But even beyond the scientific rigour, Making a Murderer shows her to be a magnetic character in her own right.

Early in season two, she looks straight at the camera and, half-grimacing, half-smirking, says bluntly, “If you hire me and you’re guilty, trust me: I’ll do a way better job than the prosecutors. I will find out if you’re guilty.”

It is a warning shot, but also a pledge: Avery in her mind is not guilty. Whether she can convince the American criminal justice system of that is the story of Making a Murderer Part Two.

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Making a Murderer Part Two is available to watch on Netflix now