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Kathleen T. Zellner of Naperville, Ill.’s Zellner & Associates is often involved in cases that seem destined to be made into movies. In her first appeal of a death penalty sentence, Zellner was representing serial murderer Larry Eyler, who had been linked to more than a dozen murders in the Midwest. “I came in after he had been convicted of one of the murders,” Zellner says, and over a period of years persuaded Eyler to disclose his other crimes. Eyler was never executed, but died in prison of AIDS. But Zellner says, “Before he died, he gave me confessions to 21 murders.” Two days after Eyler’s death, Zellner disclosed the details of these confessions, then shared the information with police investigators in the relevant jurisdictions, clearing murder cases throughout Illinois and Indiana. In another high-profile appeal, in 1994, Zellner represented Joseph Burrows after his conviction for the murder of an elderly man. Burrows had been sentenced to death, but Zellner was convinced he was innocent. “From the forensic evidence, I determined that a woman committed the murder.” The victim was in his 80s and based on evidence at the scene and the trajectory of the bullets, “there had to be a terrific struggle,” she says. Her client and another man implicated in the death “were great big men,” who would have subdued victim William Dulin immediately, she surmised. Zellner zeroed in on the key witness against Burrows, a woman who had been convicted of complicity in the crime. “I was able to get her to confess.” Burrows was soon released. Zellner has long been one of the most highly regarded criminal defense attorneys in Illinois. She has won more than 70 percent of the cases taken to trial and 90 percent of her post-conviction appeals. In the past four years, Zellner has turned her attention to civil litigation as well and has amassed a series of large plaintiffs’ verdicts, including $13 million to the brothers and estate of an unemployed woman who killed herself — the largest ever nationally in a medical malpractice suicide case; $2.2 million for a rape victim — the largest sexual assault verdict in Illinois; and $2.1 million against Cook County Hospital for administering the wrong medication — the highest verdict ever in Illinois for a drug-substitution error. Zellner won seven-figure verdicts for the first five civil cases she brought to trial and has never lost a civil case before a jury. Zellner developed her competitive spirit long before she went to law school. In her youth, she was a competitive swimmer in Texas and Oklahoma. “I learned sacrifice and self-discipline,” and she believes this has carried over in her career. Zellner believes that she faced few obstacles as a woman litigator. “It’s an obstacle if you think that way,” she says. “I grew up with five brothers and I was close to my father, so I’ve always dealt with men.” In addition, she says, “there is a distinct advantage to being a woman in front of a jury. Women are better listeners in voir dire. They’re more intuitive, and jurors believe I’m credible.” In her most recent high-profile case, Zellner represented four men convicted of the rape and murder of a 23-year-old Chicago medical student. Three of the four were sentenced to life in prison; the fourth was given a 12-year sentence after serving as a witness for the state against the others. Zellner came in after the conviction and she reinvestigated the case, using DNA evidence to clear all four. They were released this month. “I’ve financed these DNA cases through my civil cases,” she says. “There is nothing more gratifying than getting people out of prison who are innocent.”

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