In Person: Freedom Fighter

Jamie Pietras

Kathleen Zellner

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CHICAGOKathleen Zellners got a cure for everything from medical negligence to irresponsible property management: It comes in one hefty shot to the wallet. The civil and criminal attorney is perhaps Chicagos biggest advocate for financial punishment. In March 1999, she won the largest-ever sexual assault verdict in Illinois, $2.2 million, after suing the management of the Chicago Bar Association building on behalf of a client who was raped there. Four months later, she won a $6.5 million medical malpractice verdict against an Illinois hospital that denied admission to a woman who later committed suicide.

Thankfully, Zellner also has a penchant for picking fights on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Using the same formidable research techniques that have proven so successful in the civil suits, Zellner has won the freedom of seven wrongfully convicted men in the past seven years.

Take Omar Saunders and cousins Larry and Calvin Ollins, who took their first free breaths as adults on December 5. Wrongfully convicted as teen-agers along with another man, Marcellius Bradford, for the rape and murder of Rush University Medical School student Lori Roscetti, the three men had served 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

In 1987, Saunders, the Ollins cousins and Bradford were arrested and accused of Roscettis murder. At the trial, the four men were convicted based on the confessions of Bradford and Calvin Ollins.

Zellner says those confessions were beaten out of Bradford and coaxed out of 14-year-old Calvin Ollins under the pretense that hed be allowed to go home. Even more insidious, Zellner says, their statements were actually handwritten by police on yellow legal pads, who devised the hypotheses after talking to an FBI profiler. Hes stripped and hooked to the wall, as Zellner describes Bradfords interrogation. Then both cops come in. One of them puts on gloves and they just start beating. Then they take him, they polygraph him and tell him he flunked. They bring him back, they dump a bucket of mop water over him, dirty mop water, and theyre telling him theyre going to kill him.

The three men were just teens when a Cook County judge handed each of them life sentences. Bradford, who pled guilty, served six years of a 12-year sentence.

In 2000, Zellner took on the case, and within a year, the prosecutions case against the men had fallen apart. In a report commissioned by Zellner, noted forensic scientist Edward Blake said research by the Illinois State Police crime lab, used as evidence in the 1988 trial as well as eight other cases, amounted to scientific fraud. Bradford admitted he lied at the trial, and additional witnesses came forward to say they, too, had implicated the four men during the trial to protect themselves. Finally, a series of DNA tests on hair and semen exonerated the victims.

But even as the case began to crumble, Chicago police officials still clung to their account of what happened. They said it was a smash and grab, though she didnt seem to be missing any money. They said Roscetti was hijacked and attacked in her car, though her injuries indicated she was probably just transported in the vehicle. No police officer would have made up the story of what they did to her prior to her death and after her head was crushed, Chicago Police Deputy Chief James Maurer told the Chicago Sun-Times in June. Stephen King does not even write that stuff.

But the question of who does lingers, because by the time Cook County States Attorney Richard Devine announced he was seeking a dismissal of the case, no evidence against the men remained. On December 4, a judge voided their convictions. Zellner plans to file a lawsuit over the city and countys handling of the case. This time, she says, I would say [the settlement] could go anywhere from $1 million to $5 or $6 million.

Though shes reaped the kind of criminal defense success it would take most a lifetime to achieve, Zellners career runs the gamut. Before starting her own practice in 1990, she worked as a medical malpractice defense attorney for hospitals and insurance companies. In 1999, she began concentrating on civil cases, developing a specialty in sexual assault and womens health suits alongside the malpractice suits that make up the larger part of her practice. All the while, she has continued her hobby of getting innocent men out of jail.

The string of victories began in 1994 with Death Row inmate Joseph Burrows: Zellner persuaded the real killer to confess, and Burrows was released. In 1997, Billy Wardell and Donald Reynolds were cleared of wrongdoing after DNA testing revealed they were innocent of the rape and robbery of two University of Chicago students; they had served nine years of their 55-year sentences. Now, in the wake of the highly publicized Roscetti decision, Zellner is at work on two more cases she believes are the result of false confessions.

Zellners only regret is that she can take on only a few of the criminal and civil cases she is contacted about. An encyclopedia-high stack of letters, some of them handwritten and bearing the sterile return stamp of state penitentiaries, rests atop a stately wooden desk in the rear of her office. There are other innocent people in there that have approached me, weve examined their cases, and there isnt anything we can do, she concedes. Unfortunate factors, like irreversible attorney errors, can compound inmates dilemmas. There are about five of them that we feel from our re-investigation are innocent, and we cant help them.

Zellner sees herself as part of a new breed of legal reformers, not unlike the attorneys who won big with product liability cases in the late 70s and early 80s. Thats how I feel, like the Ralph Nader of the criminal world, she says. When you get very large verdicts, then products no longer malfunction, cars dont blow up and eventually, I think, if there are large verdicts, they will start cracking down on the police.

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