"Making a Murderer" returns with a new Steven Avery lawyer to obsess over: Kathleen Zellner

Steven Avery's and Brendan Dassey's cases have stayed in the news since season 1. Zellner gives new reason to watch

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published October 19, 2018 10:55AM (EDT)

Luke Haag and Kathleen Zellner in "Making a Murderer: Part 2" (Netflix)
Luke Haag and Kathleen Zellner in "Making a Murderer: Part 2" (Netflix)

Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” debut in December 2015 made unlikely sex symbols out of Steven Avery’s calm and competent yet passionate defense attorneys, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang. The pair went on to do speaking tours about the justice system after Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s docuseries, about suspected institutional corruption that may have tainted the investigation of the 2005 rape and murder of Wisconsin woman Teresa Halbach and subsequent convictions of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, elevated the two lawyers to cult celebrity status. Meanwhile, Avery pursued his own appeal from prison, where he is serving a life sentence. "Making a Murderer" became a true-crime sensation, and public outcry over what was perceived as an involuntary confession from Dassey and possible planted DNA evidence implicating Avery — along with a robust conversation about the role class can play in the criminal justice system — brought new attention to their cases. Laura Nirider of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth has been working the appeals process for Dassey, while Avery’s case caught the eye of Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago-based lawyer known for getting murder convictions overturned.

Let me say right off the bat that there is absolutely something grotesque about highlighting what makes a true crime story "compelling" to the disinterested consumer. I have watched "Dateline" fans enthusiastically live-tweet (and snark on) an episode featuring a horrific murder in my own family, a devastating trauma that has affected deeply the people I love most in the world and which also colors my appetite for true crime storytelling as it has grown in the entertainment and media landscape. (You can keep the comedy/true crime subgenre, thanks.) The "true" in true crime means we're talking about real people's lives upended by tragedy, not an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." That said, in the first four episodes provided ahead of Friday's launch of season 2, "Making a Murderer" takes a deep dive into how the criminal justice system works post-conviction through Avery's and Dassey's cases, which on its own is a worthwhile endeavor. Nirider and Zellner, in their different ways, transform what could otherwise have been an overly technical and dry process-driven story, with emotional forays into how the Dassey and Avery families are faring as the men go through their appeals, into a watchable procedural drama.

Of course, to Halbach's family and friends, and the extended Avery clan, as well as the Wisconsin community deeply affected by this case, these aren't characters or storylines to be dissected by critics or gossiped about at cocktail parties and on Reddit threads. A young woman was brutally murdered, and any closure her community may have felt after the convictions of Avery and Dassey disappeared when Demos and Ricciardi and Netflix found themselves with a runaway hit. The series also faced criticisms over what the filmmakers left out of their first season. They air the backlash in the first episode, denouncements of the series coming from the media, Halbach's family, friends, and even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who refused to issue pardons for Avery and Dassey after viewers petitioned then-President Barack Obama for one. (It's a state case, Obama replied, putting the matter back in Wisconsin's hands.) Disgraced former special prosecutor Ken Kratz denounced the show, saying that persuasive evidence — including Avery's DNA from hand sweat — that had been found on Halbach's Rav4 had been left out.

But given the intense interest in Avery and Dassey after "Making a Murderer" came out, the national media has followed the developments in their appeals over the last few years closely. If you care about the state of their cases, you already know the latest updates. So for there to be a story to fuel season 2, "Making a Murderer" needed new characters to follow who could move freely and explain the new post-conviction legal moves as they are made. Nirider provides the idealistic passion; her belief that Dassey's constitutional rights were violated is palpable. But every journalist knows when a larger-than-life character has walked into their story, and Demos and Ricciardi are clearly no exceptions. I couldn't take my eyes off Zellner; as documentary characters go, she's almost too watchable to be real.

There's her face, for starters, which the camera loves for good reason: angular, dramatic, with sharp eyes that seem to miss nothing. Her specific brand of quiet, controlled swagger is a stark contrast to the determined competence of Buting and Strang; her pronouncement that she tells her clients not to accept her services if they indeed are guilty, because she will find them out, is meant to mark her as not a typical defense attorney but rather a righteous crusader driven by pursuit of the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.

Whether you buy that line or not — and whether you have a preference for the outcome of her crusade or not — it does add an additional layer of drama to Zellner's methodical forensic testing, reenactment of the search for Halbach's remains, and interrogation of every piece of physical evidence the state submitted to convict Avery. When she denounces a facet of the state's case against Avery as "stupid," she lingers on the word in an irresistible way that Cecily Strong will undoubtedly lean into in the inevitable "Saturday Night Live" homage. She tears into Kratz's hand sweat DNA evidence with gusto, as well as the smears of Avery's blood found inside Halbach's car, bringing in a line of forensic experts to debunk the state's findings on not only the DNA evidence but also the site and manner in which Halbach's body was alleged to have been burned. And she manages to sell brain fingerprinting as a marvelous innovation in lie detection that can prove whether a person recognizes details of a crime or not, rather than the controversial practice many consider it to be.

One thing Zellner's case needs is an alternate suspect for the murder, with enough evidence to cast reasonable doubt on Avery's conviction, and watching her lead her team through different theories about who may have killed Halbach, and how, will no doubt open up new arguments for the armchair detective set. In contrast, Nirider's fight against Dassey's conviction is based on a single unwavering premise: that her client, the underdog, continues to be taken advantage of by a legal system that's weighted against him. Both storylines come with moments of triumph and disappointment for the respective teams in season 2, but it's Zellner's case, with its bloody reenactments, science experts and her fascinating and relentless brain at work, that will keep viewers in their chairs.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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