Kathleen Zellner

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Kathleen Zellner
BornKathleen Thomas
Midland, Texas
EmployerKathleen T. Zellner & Associates
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Kathleen Zellner
BornKathleen Thomas
Midland, Texas
EmployerKathleen T. Zellner & Associates

Kathleen Zellner (née Thomas; born in Midland, Texas) is an American lawyer.

Early life[edit]

Zellner was born in Midland, Texas. She is the second oldest of eight children. Her father, Owen Daniel Thomas,[1] was an engineer and geologist for Phillips Petroleum in charge of its worldwide production and exploration. He was involved in the Ecofisk oil discovery in the North Sea and discoveries in South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.[2][3]

Zellner married Robert E. Zellner, Jr., while they were attending the University of Missouri. Zellner began her legal education at McGill College of Law in its double degree program in French civil law and English common law. She completed her legal education at Northern Illinois University College of Law.[4]


Zellner started her law firm in January 1991. The firm represents both civil and criminal clients. She has obtained the exoneration of 17 wrongfully convicted men, handling many of these cases pro bono.[5] In one case, she obtained the release of death row inmate Joseph Burrows by persuading the real killer to confess to the murder. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision releasing Burrows from death row.[6] In November 2009, she began working to obtain Ryan Ferguson's release from prison.[7][8] On November 12, 2013, her client, Ryan Ferguson was released from prison after serving ten years, following the overturn of his murder conviction by the Western Appeals Court.[9]

In 1994, Zellner persuaded Larry Eyler to confess to 21 murders prior to his death. All 21 murder cases were closed. She has won millions of dollars in civil jury trials and settlements.[10] She also won $15.5 million for the false arrest and malicious prosecution of Kevin Fox, who was incarcerated for 8 ½ months for the murder of his 3 year old daughter.[11] His wife, Melissa, recovered for her loss of consortium and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On appeal, the appellate court reduced the verdict to $8.1 million.[12]

Zellner's exonerations[edit]

1. Ronnie Bullock

Bullock spent over ten years in prison for the kidnapping and rape of a 9-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl before DNA testing revealed that he was not the culprit.[13]

2. Joseph Burrows

Burrows spent nearly five years on death row until Zellner persuaded the real killer to confess at the post-conviction hearing.[14]

3-4. Billy Wardell and Donald Reynolds

Wardell and Reynolds spent over ten years in prison for robbery and sexual assault. They were exonerated in 1997, when Zellner convinced prosecutors to agree to DNA testing that cleared them as the perpetrators.[15]

5-8. Omar Saunders, Marcellius Bradford, Larry Ollins, and Calvin Ollins

Saunders, Bradford, and the two Ollins cousins were convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 23-year-old medical student Lori Roscetti. Bradford spent six years in prison as the result of a plea deal, but Saunders and the Ollins cousins spent nearly fifteen years in prison before DNA testing was conducted that cleared all four men of the crimes.[16]

9. Kevin Fox (see also Murder of Riley Fox) (charges dismissed)

Fox was imprisoned for eight months for the murder of his daughter, Riley Fox. Zellner represented Fox until he was cleared by DNA evidence and won a $15.5 million verdict against the government (reduced to $8.1 million on appeal).[17]

10-11. Harold Hill and Dan Young

Hill and Young were convicted of the 1990 rape and murder (by strangulation and setting the victim on fire) of Kathy Morgan. DNA testing performed in 2004 led to the release of both Hill and Young in 2005.[18]

12. Alprentiss Nash

Nash spent over seventeen years in prison for the murder of Leon Stroud. In 2010, Zellner convinced the Illinois Court of Appeals to order DNA testing of the ski mask worn by the perpetrator. This testing led to Nash's exoneration and the apprehension of the real killer, who was serving time for an unrelated drug crime. A federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago is currently pending.[19]

13. Cesar Munoz

Munoz was convicted of the 1997 murder of his girlfriend, Magdaliz Rosario. Zellner's firm represented Munoz and won his acquittal - after the fourth trial (the first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the second two resulted in convictions but were reversed on appeal) - in June 2013.[20]

14. Lathierial Boyd

Boyd spent twenty-three years in prison for the murder of Michael Fleming and the attempted murder of Ricky Warner until his conviction was vacated in 2013 due to evidence of his innocence and prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence. A $20 million civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago and various police officers is currently pending in federal court.[21]

15. Ryan Ferguson (see also Ryan Ferguson (wrongful conviction))

Ferguson was arrested in 2004 for the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. His case generated national media coverage, and Ferguson gained support from many members of the public. He was released in November 2013 after Zellner and her firm convinced the only two witnesses against Ferguson, Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, to admit that they had lied at trial. A $100 million civil rights lawsuit against Boone County, Missouri, the prosecutor, police officers, and others is currently pending in federal court.[22]

16. James Edwards

Edwards was convicted of two murders as the result of a false confession. He was exonerated for the murder of Fred Reckling after Zellner filed a motion for DNA testing that cleared Edwards as the murderer. His other murder conviction, which came from the same confession shown by DNA testing to be false, is currently being challenged.[23]

Civil verdict records[edit]

Since 1991, Zellner's firm has obtained $90 million for clients in verdicts and settlements.[24] A number of these represented record civil verdicts in cases involving medical malpractice and civil rights.

Jerry Hobbs: Hobbs spent five years in jail for the murder of his young daughter and her friend. In 2010, DNA testing led to the apprehension of the real killer. After Hobbs was released, Zellner filed a civil rights lawsuit on his behalf, which settled for $7.75 million. This is the largest pre-trial detainee settlement in the United States.[25]

Clyde Ray Spencer: Clyde Ray Spencer, a Vancouver, Washington cop, was framed for the sexual molestation of his two biological children and one step-child. At the time of the investigation, his wife was engaged in an affair with the lead detective on Spencer's case. A federal jury found that the detectives on the case deliberately fabricated evidence that caused Spencer to enter an Alford plea (no contest) and spend twenty years in prison. After Spencer's children grew up, they testified that they had never been abused and that the detectives would not listen when they told them so. Spencer was awarded $9 million in compensatory damages, the highest civil rights verdict in Washington and the highest involving an Alford plea in the United States. The case was featured on Dateline NBC and the Katie Couric show, Katie (talk show).[26][27]

Cathy Skol: Skol was a highly-decorated Chicago police officer. During her fifth pregnancy, Dr. Scott Pierce (who was substituting for her regular doctor) refused to give her pain medication, told her she "deserved to feel pain" because she had not given enough advance notice, yelled obscenities at her, talked about performing abortions, arranged the stirrups so as to put Skol in an uncomfortable position, and told Skol that she and her baby might bleed to death, all during Skol's delivery of the child. The jury awarded $1.4 million, $800,000 for emotional distress and $600,000 for loss of normal life. Skol's case set the record for the highest verdict in Illinois for negligent/intentional infliction of emotional distress in a medical malpractice case.[28]

Kevin Fox: Kevin Fox was wrongfully imprisoned for eight months the murder of his daughter, Riley Fox. (See also Murder of Riley Fox.) Zellner represented Fox criminally until his release, then filed a civil lawsuit on his behalf. The jury awarded $15.5 million to Fox, though an appeals court later reduced the amount to $8.1 million.[17] This is the highest civil rights verdict in the United States for a pre-trial detainee who was never convicted of the underlying charges.[29]

Lynn Green: Green sued the owners and building management group of a Chicago building after being bound, gagged, and raped for forty minutes at 321 S. Plymouth Court. A jury found that the building's inadequate security measures contributed to the rape, especially after Zellner pointed out that it was known that there was a rapist loose in the area. Green was awarded $2.5 million in damages, the highest verdict for a rape case in the United States.[30]

MaryAnn Martino: A Cook County, Illinois jury found the Illinois Masonic Medical Center liable for $6.5 million after it turned away MaryAnn Martino, who had asked to be admitted for psychiatric treatment. After being turned away, Martino committed suicide. This is the largest Illinois verdict against a hospital in a suicide case.[31]

Karl Williams: A federal jury awarded Williams $2 million ($1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages) after finding that Dr. Ghanshyam Patel was deliberately indifferent to Williams' medical needs, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, when he failed to give adequate care and attention to an eye injury Williams sustained while he was an inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois.[32] This is the highest civil rights verdict for medical malpractice in Illinois.[33]

Julisiah Toney: A Cook County, Illinois jury awarded $3 million in damages to a four-year-old girl who had suffered from a brachial plexus injury at birth, resulting in the partial paralysis of her right hand and arm.[34][35]

Kewiana Sole: Sole was awarded over $2 million as a result of medical malpractice when she was prescribed the wrong medication, leading to brain damage.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Owen Daniel Thomas :: Father of Kathleen Zellner
  2. ^ "Ekofist Was Turning Point for Oil Industry Phillips Discovery 20 Years Old". News OK. 
  3. ^ "Bobbing for Oil On the High Seas; Time May be Right for Deep Plunge". Christian Science Monitor. 
  4. ^ State Bar of IL :: Kathleen Zellner
  5. ^ Pro Bono :: Kathleen Zellner
  6. ^ Joseph Burrows :: Kathleen Zellner
  7. ^ Ryan Ferguson :: Kathleen Zellner
  8. ^ Ryan Ferguson Website :: Kathleen Zellner
  9. ^ In re: Ryan Ferguson v. Dave Dormire, 413 S.W.3d 40 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013). Missouri Court of Appeals :: Western District
  10. ^ Verdicts :: Kathleen Zellner
  11. ^ Kevin Fox :: Kathleen Zellner
  12. ^ Fox v. Hayes, 600 F.3d 819 (7th Cir. 2010). 7th Circuit Court of Appeals
  13. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Ronnie Bullock". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  14. ^ "Perjured testimony by the actual killer put Joseph Burrows on death row". Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern Law (Chicago). 
  15. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Billy Wardell". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  16. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Omar Saunders, Marcellius Bradford, Larry Ollins, and Calvin Ollins". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  17. ^ a b "The Nightmare: A Look at the Riley Fox Case". Chicago Magazine (Chicago, IL). 
  18. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Harold Hill and Dan Young". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  19. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Alprentiss Nash". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  20. ^ "Exoneration Case Detail: Cesar Munoz". National Registry of Exonerations (University of Michigan Law School). 
  21. ^ "Decades Lost to Chicago Frame Job, Man Says". Courthouse News Service. 
  22. ^ "Ryan Ferguson's attorney files $100 million lawsuit". CNN. 
  23. ^ "Lake County exoneration could ripple beyond Illinois". Chicago Tribune. 
  24. ^ "Jury Verdict Reporter: Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates". Law Bulletin Publishing Company. April 29, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Jerry Hobbs Cleared: Dad Charges in Girls' Murder to go Free, DNA Evidence Links Another Man". Huffington Post. 
  26. ^ "Innocent Man Wins $9 Million After Serving 20 Years". NBC Dateline. 
  27. ^ "One Man's Fight to Prove His Innocence". Katie Couric. 
  28. ^ "Catherine Skol v. Dr. Scott Pierce". Illinois Jury Verdicts. 
  29. ^ "Civil Rights & Medical Malpractice Verdicts and Settlements". Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates. 
  30. ^ "Naperville Lawyer Gets Record Award in Rape Suit". Chicago Tribune. 
  31. ^ "Hospital Gets $6.5 Million Tab in Suicide". Chicago Tribune. 
  32. ^ "Karl Williams v. Dr. Ghanshyam Patel". Williams v. Patel, 104 F.Supp.2d 984 (2000). 
  33. ^ "Kathleen T. Zellner". Leading Lawyers Network. 
  34. ^ "Birth Injuries". Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates. 
  35. ^ "Report of the Committee on Finance". Cook County Board of Commissioners. 

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