Undoing wrongful convictions takes a killer instinct.
Chicago-based exoneration specialist Kathleen Zellner's got it. Her record speaks for itself. Over the past two decades, she has righted more wrongful convictions than any private attorney in America. What's her secret? The Herculean task of untangling official lies, investigative bias, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel and forensic junk science to free 19 innocent men requires more than intellectual firepower (of which Zellner possesses a chess grand master's surplus).
The job demands iron will and unshakable fortitude to beat a system rigged to preserve government errors and protect prosecutions. As the "Survivor" slogan goes: "Outwit, outplay, outlast."
"If someone's innocent," Tenacious Z says with trademark bluntness, "you find a way."
In case you've been living in a cave, Zellner is the breakout star of Netflix's "Making a Murderer: Part 2," released last month as a follow-up to the original 2015 documentary on the plight of Wisconsin auto salvage worker Steven Avery. He served 18 years for an alleged sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985 that he did not commit. Two years after he was exonerated and freed when DNA testing cleared him and identified the real culprit, Manitowoc County police and prosecutors faced Avery's $36 million civil suit against them.
But just as two of the key architects of the wrongful conviction — former sheriff Tom Kocourek and former prosecutor Denis Vogel — were scheduled to be deposed, murder charges were brought against Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey in the death of photographer Teresa Halbach. The case conveniently short-circuited the landmark civil suit and landed Avery and Dassey in prison, where they remain today.
The copious evidence that Avery and Dassey were framed by corrupt cops and disgraced, sexting-addicted former prosecutor Ken Kratz (whom Zellner has affectionately dubbed "Sweaty") is subject to hot debate. But Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and the state's unmistakable incentive to perpetrate another wrongful conviction is not. As Chuck Avery, Steven Avery's brother, noted in the original series:
"There are 36 million reasons why they should be doing this to him."
In addition to pursuing the "why" and the "how," "Making a Murderer: Part 2" provides a singular public service: Introducing millions of viewers to the world of post-conviction hell. The procedural obstacles are maddening, the investigative efforts painstaking and the wait interminable. The series follows Dassey's lawyers' suspenseful trip up to the Supreme Court, but the heart of "Making a Murderer: Part 2" is Zellner's multipart master class on how to undermine confidence in a verdict by uncovering new evidence and exposing suppression or concealment of evidence that affected the outcome of the trial.