Making a Murderer isn’t what you’d call a charismatic show. The small-town Wisconsinites who populate the Netflix true-crime series are generally understated, save perhaps for Steven Avery himself, who exudes a naïve, matter-of-fact charm. But attorney Kathleen Zellner, whose fight to exonerate Avery for the murder of Teresa Halbach is a major part of Making a Murderer Part Two, brings a different energy: She’s big-city confident, dressed to the nines, and unafraid to make waves in the service of her client, whom she thoroughly believes is innocent.
The Chicago-based lawyer refers to herself as “an attorney for the innocent,” and her life’s work has been the release of the wrongly convicted. Zellner simply wants to free innocent defendants, and she’s done it a remarkable 19 times to date — more, she claims, than any other lawyer in private practice.
After beginning her career in more typical fashion at an equity firm, Zellner was thrust into the defense of a decidedly gruesome killer named Larry Eyler. Her experience with that case set Zellner onto her current path. “Defending corporations and helping Exxon or Shell Oil raise their stock price, most people find, over a lifetime, is not satisfying,” she told Law Crossing years ago. “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.” (Lest that sound too altruistic, she also said she makes “more money than 99.9 percent of all lawyers” while pursuing that noble cause.)
Zellner seems drawn to cases that lend themselves to twisty investigations like Avery’s in Making a Murderer. The thread that ties her work together is knotted, but her biggest cases tend to all share one thing: innocent men who look guilty. Many also share a more sinister underlying detail: crooked cops and prosecutors happy to fudge evidence in order to secure convictions, regardless of whether they’re convicting the right people. Below, we take a close look at five of Zellner’s most notable wrongful-conviction trials over the years, some of which have obvious parallels to Avery’s case.
In 1990, Zellner was appointed to defend Larry Eyler, a man facing the death penalty for the 1984 murder of a 15-year-old boy. Eyler was also a suspect in many more killings — as many as 23 in a two-year period — so Zellner tried to bargain with the state: If she convinced Eyler to admit to the other killings, thereby giving grieving families some closure, she wanted him committed to prison for life instead of being executed. The state of Illinois didn’t take the deal, though, and Eyler ended up dying of complications from AIDS in 1994. Before his death, Zellner convinced Eyler to admit to her all of his killings, including 21 unsolved murders, and allowed her to release the names after he died. In Making a Murderer Part Two, Zellner mentions how her experience representing Eyler would help shape her career: “I really didn’t want to do another case like that, and I didn’t want to represent anyone that was guilty.”
The shorthand version of Zellner’s role in freeing Joseph Burrows from death row — where he’d been imprisoned for five years — is that her masterful courtroom skills caused the real killer to confess, right there on the stand. The more detailed story is even more impressive: Zellner visited Gayle Potter in prison over the course of a year, slowly convincing her to tell the truth at a post-conviction hearing for Burrows, whom Potter had falsely claimed was her accomplice. Getting Potter to confess was the only way to free her client, and Zellner pulled it off. The Los Angeles Times ran a fascinating (and massive) history of the case back in 1994.
Nash spent 17 years in prison for a botched 1995 drug robbery that led to the murder of a man named Leon Stroud. Astonishingly, he was imprisoned despite obvious evidence that could have proven his innocence — the killer left behind a ski mask that wasn’t tested for DNA. Police were also accused of coercing witness statements to implicate Nash, who claimed he was shopping during the murder. It wasn’t until Zellner came onboard and insisted on new DNA testing — again, the ski mask was in evidence the whole time — that Nash was conclusively proven innocent, released from prison in August 2012, and another man arrested for the crime. Tragically, Nash was shot and killed three years later during a failed robbery attempt.
In this nightmarish 2005 trial, Ferguson’s friend Charles Erickson took the witness stand and detailed how Ferguson murdered 48-year-old Kent Heitholt. Another eyewitness also pointed the finger at Ferguson, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. No physical evidence corroborated their testimonies, but Ferguson was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to 40 years. He was in prison for nearly a decade before Zellner was able to extract statements from both of those key witnesses, who claimed their testimony was falsified and coerced by police and prosecutors. Zellner also learned that the prosecution withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the original defense team, including testimony from another eyewitness who told the prosecution that Ferguson was definitely not the person she saw at the crime scene. Ferguson sued — with help from Zellner, of course — and was awarded $11 million in damages. After his release in November 2013, Ferguson said, “To get arrested and charged for a crime you didn’t commit, it is incredibly easy and you can lose your life very fast, but to get out it takes an army.”
In 2004, Fox’s 3-year-old daughter Riley was found dead in a creek not far from their family’s home in Wilmington, Illinois. With no real leads for months (and in a move that may have been colored by local politics), police brought in Fox for a grueling 14-hour interrogation, during which he was shown pictures of the crime scene and threatened with prison rape. He confessed during that interrogation, but recanted almost immediately. Zellner chased after DNA evidence — the killer’s saliva — which the local police seemed hell-bent on not having tested. The saliva ultimately proved that Fox wasn’t the killer, and eventually another man confessed to the crime. (In a truly strange twist, the real killer, Scott Eby, left a shoe at the crime scene with his last name written in it.) Zellner then helped Fox sue the Will County police, who were found to have framed him. Fox was awarded more than $15 million in damages, though that number was later reduced. Chicago magazine ran a heartbreaking deep dive into the case back in 2006.