A chat with Kathleen Zellner — the attorney who has ‘Making a Murderer’ devotees talking
If you’ve watched any of “Making a Murderer: Part 2,” the follow-up to Netflix’s hit 2015 documentary series, it’s likely Kathleen Zellner has left an impression on you.
The first season of the series followed the 2007 trial of Steven Avery for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in a small Wisconsin town. Avery, along with his nephew Brendan Dassey, was found guilty. Avery, who maintains his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The second part of the docu-series tracks the post-conviction process for both Avery and Dassey as they seek to overturn the rulings.
And Zellner, whom viewers are introduced to as the new attorney representing Avery, has people talking (and tweeting).
The 61-year-old Chicago-based lawyer specializes in wrongful conviction cases. She’s had 19 convictions overturned and is determined to add Avery to the list. Her impatience for what she views as ineptitude, her fervor to re-create events to find holes in the prosecution’s theories and, well, her fashion sense have made her a standout of the series.
The Times spoke to Zellner about taking on the case, using Twitter as a tool, and whatever happened with that biopic about her that was going to star Jessica Biel.
On why she wanted to be a lawyer ...
“When I started out in the very beginning, I was going to be a journalist, and that’s how I ended up at the University of Missouri [she would go on to graduate from Canada’s Concordia University and get her law degree at Northern Illinois University]. I felt an interest in history, thought I would be a history professor. I guess I was always interested in the psychology of criminal cases. What motivated or made people do what they did. But I saw myself more as being a prosecutor or somebody who would go after the bad guy.
“Then I had the experience of getting appointed on somebody who turned out to be a serial killer [Larry Eyler]. [Since] then, I really did not want to be involved in anything like that.
“I ended up getting someone’s case who was innocent and was a few months away from being executed, but I still had a whole other practice. I had a litigation practice — medical malpractice and rape victims. I was the general counsel for a large HMO, so my world did not narrow to just wrongful convictions for a period of time after I started my own law firm.”
On watching “Making a Murderer” …
“Here’s what happened. I didn’t watch it when it came out. I was extremely busy. A client of mine, Ryan Ferguson — I had gotten his conviction overturned in Missouri — kept texting me about it. We were in the middle of his civil rights case. He kept saying, ‘Here’s this new series out, it’s really interesting and maybe you would like to watch it.’ And then he’d say, ‘Did you watch it yet?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I haven’t had time; I’m really busy.’ And then he said, ‘Well, could you just watch Episode 3?’ Because it reminded him of something in his case. My husband and I decided we’d just sit down and start watching it, and we ended up watching it pretty much straight; we watched over several days.
“Steven Avery had already contacted me a couple of years before that, and he flunked our screen, because at that point, there was so many pieces of forensic evidence that seemed to implicate him in the case, we were like, there’s no way we’re going to do that. Then when I watched [the show], I was seeing all these things about the forensic evidence, I knew there was a huge problem. Like when I heard the testimony of the state experts, most of them were people that were not well-credentialed. The testimony was not very precise. I had just gotten someone exonerated on blood spatter, and blood spatter [in Avery’s case] made absolutely no sense. I was very focused on Steven Avery’s demeanor, because I’ve learned, over the years, particularly when the verdict came in, you’ll see people that are guilty be really histrionic and sobbing and all that, but there’s a certain look that you just would have to have seen it a bunch of times like I have. And it really struck me when I saw that, that he could well be innocent.
“So I came in the office the next week and I pulled the letters from our system that he’d written me, and I asked him if I could come and visit with him. And I explained to him that if I took the case, I’d want to do all the scientific testing. At that time, I was saying to him, ‘I’d probably want you to do a polygraph before I’d even accept it, blah, blah, blah.’ And he was like, ‘Anything you want to do. Anything that you want to do.’ That is never what someone guilty tells you, ever. So just in the first meeting with him, I was very struck with that.”
On how the documentary’s popularity has hurt or helped Avery’s case ...
“I don’t know. The way I see it is, I do think educating the public about the way the conviction process and what happens — and with the second [part], the post-conviction process — shows how important the trial is. I mean, there should have been experts. The state had 14 experts. The defense had one, who wasn’t very good. Once you’re convicted, the odds are just so stacked against you. The first series, if anything, I think Wisconsin really dug in, that they weren’t going to give up their conviction.
“They felt like they’d been put on the spot. But statistically, from the National Registry of Exonerations, there’s a strong correlation between exonerations and a lot of publicity. And I know on Ryan Ferguson’s case, it was a key component in his case getting overturned. So on balance, do I think if I was innocent, I’d want a lot of publicity? Yeah. Absolutely. Because, I mean, there’s no question those cases tend to get overturned more frequently.”
On using Twitter as a tool ...
“I’d never done that before in a case, but I didn’t want to do interviews. So when I got the case in January of 2016, I was flooded with interview requests, and reporters, people were flying in from New York and just showing up in our reception area to interview me, and I decided I wasn’t gonna do any interviews. And then I thought, because I love jury trials and I’ve done a lot of civil cases, that Twitter would be like a mock trial experiment for me. So I always mock try my cases. So I thought, I’ll just walk through the evidence, like the fact there’s blood in the car but his fingerprints aren’t in the car. And there’s no blood in his bedroom, where supposedly her throat is cut … I wanted to see what the public’s reaction was to it. So I would put something up about the bullet, or I’d put something up about the blood or the incredibly damaging press conference that the prosecutor did. Twitter was my way of not doing interviews and just seeing what the public thought. And even now, in this last week, I have 150,000 new followers, but they’re sending me all their ideas. Some of them are really good.”
On her experiment process ...
“What you have to do on post-conviction is … I try to take each piece of the state’s case, and I deconstruct it. The main thing I’m trying to do is: Can I re-create what the state said happened? So, can I get blood and get in the car and just drip in six places and not leave any fingerprints? How does that work? And so I’m trying to duplicate what they said happened, and I’m also trying to figure out what happened. And we’ve got even more information than what was in the series, because they stopped in July and I’ve just kept working on it.”
On reading theories from viewers of the documentary ...
“My clerks [read them]. We have 500 emails this week. We sort through them for tips and ideas and people. We have a company in England volunteering cellphone tower expertise. Scientists contact us. My clerks can separate pretty quickly what’s not helpful, but we can also see what people are thinking. Because I believe in the jury system, and this gives you insight into the average person and how they’re viewing this.”
On the status of Avery’s post-conviction process…
“We’re in the process of appealing it to the appellate court. We file our brief on Dec. 20. And I would say 98% of all exonerations are achieved at the appellate level. We’re about 10 years behind where Brendan Dassey is because Steven didn’t have an attorney for years.
“The longest I’ve been in one of these is four years. So I’m at the two-and-a-half-year mark right now with Steven. I’m hoping that we can get the appellate court to overturn it. At least send it back for an evidentiary hearing. If I get a new trial, he will not be convicted. I still am very hopeful about this. But we’re in the early stage of the whole thing.”
On the movie about her that was going to star Jessica Biel and whether she’d consider another offer ...
“She and I didn’t have the same view of it that the producer had. We didn’t want to do something that just turned into a slasher movie. It was before she married Justin Timberlake. She and I both saw it the same way, that we didn’t like the way, ultimately, they wanted to do the movie, so I just didn’t renew the contract with them. I’m just doing my work. I’ve got so much else to do right now. I like to do things like a documentary that educate the public, but I’ve got all these cases, and people depending on me to try to help them get out. So that’s not a priority with me right now.”
On people admiring her fashion sense ...
“I like clothes. Everyone has different tastes, but I love clothes particularly because of the work I’m doing. It’s just a diversion for me. I can be at the junkyard, but I don’t have to be dressed like I am ... It makes me feel better, given that the work is fairly grim. So, I like clothes. I always have. And, yeah, I wasn’t really aware of that, of people noticing all that. I have a million pair of sunglasses … When you’re doing this kind of work that’s just so grim, it just makes you feel better too.”
‘Making a Murderer’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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