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MURDER MOST COMPLICATED

STEVE AVERY MAY BE THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS PRISONER AFTER NETFLIX’S MAKING A MURDERER SHOWED HOW HE GOT CONVICTED OF A BRUTAL HOMICIDE. KATHLEEN ZELLNER MIGHT BECOME THE MOST FAMOUS ATTORNEY IN THE WORLD IF SHE BUSTS HIM OUT

WHEN KATHLEEN ZELLNER was little, she had a friend across the street who kept a pet duck. Toothbrush was a peaceful soul who liked to eat wasps and paddle around a backyard kiddie pool in small-town Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in the late 1950s. Zellner was definitely not a peaceful soul—she regularly ordered martial arts guides out of comic books, then hid them behind the covers off her doll books so she could study judo and jujitsu moves without her mother noticing. Zellner put those punches and kicks to practical use. One day, a mean teenage boy grabbed Toothbrush and threw him to hunting dogs penned in a neighbor’s yard. Zellner, about 8 at the time, was furious. “Kathleen was so mad she went over and beat him up. She was fierce,” says her brother, John Hall Thomas, a defense attorney in New Orleans, who remembers the boy’s nose bleeding as an adult pulled his sister off the boy. “Nobody messed with Kathleen after that, I’m telling you.”

Zellner says that same feeling of righteous protection still motivates her: “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.”

The wiry girl who meted out street justice over a dead duck grew up to become a defense attorney who has secured the exoneration of 17 men and won almost $90 million from wrongful conviction and medical malpractice lawsuits. Zellner has also dropped a headless lamb into a creek to investigate the rape and murder of a child, coaxed 21 confessions from a serial killer and seen it reported that Jessica Biel would play her in a movie. An attorney said facing her at trial was “worse than my divorce.”

“WOMEN WHO HAVE BAD JUDGMENT ABOUT MEN ARE MURDERED.”

The bullies Zellner will face next, she says, are the Wisconsin police and prosecutors who locked up Steve Avery, who became a national phenomenon thanks to the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. The doc, which led a lot of viewers to believe Avery was framed, opens with his wrongful conviction and 18 years in prison for a 1985 rape; it then digs into his arrest and conviction for the 2005 murder, in the same county, of Teresa Halbach, a photographer killed after driving to the Avery family’s auto salvage yard on Halloween to take a picture of a van for Auto Trader. Avery’s low-IQ nephew Brendan Dassey, 16 at the time, confessed he helped his uncle rape and kill Halbach in what is either the reluctant admission of a horrific crime or an example of persistent detectives leading and prodding a dimwitted teen. (Dassey was found guilty in a separate trial.) Zellner watched the series in her 3,000-square-foot home theater, where she does jury prep and screens her favorite Coen brothers movies. “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 says. “The longer I watched it, the more angry I got.”

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