2008 Alumni Achievement Award Winner
Keith Belzer '85, a nationally recognized trial attorney known for his work
defending impoverished and underprivileged clients, says that the most
notable moment of his career was the high-profile case of Evan Zimmerman, a man falsely convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a homicide.
"The Wisconsin Innocence Project was able to get a new trial for Mr. Zimmerman and asked me to take over the case for the second trial," he recalls. "On April 28, 2005, in the middle of a second trial, Evan was officially and permanently cleared of any role in the 2000 murder."
The director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Keith Findley, later wrote that "Belzer's performance at [the Zimmerman] trial was masterful, serving as a tremendous model from which students and Innocence Project faculty learned a great deal."
His performance skills were shaped by his undergraduate days at Knox. Once planning on making a career out of theatre, Belzer spent his time on campus participating in plays and Rep Term, not preparing to defend those wronged by the criminal justice system. However, he calls his time at Knox "a great awakening."
"I came to Knox interested in sports and politics," he says. "While I have never lost my interest in sports or politics, I left Knox interested in the world of ideas. Although I was a theatre major, Knox encouraged and, in fact, required a diversity of thinking."
After graduating, he worked as an actor, director, and playwright in Chicago, but soon decided to pursue a different career path.
"When I realized that theatre was not really going to be my life calling, I had enough versatility and academic acumen to make the transition to law school," he says. The analytical skills he learned at Knox served him well as he completed his law degree at Loyola University, but his skills in theatre shaped his success as an attorney.
With his defense of Scott Lawson against a Wisconsin county governmental unit, Belzer achieved the largest monetary award for a disabled individual in U.S. history. Reaching back into knowledge he gained as part of Knox's theater department, he constructed a life-size replica of a jail cell with Knox theatre professor Craig Choma '93 to show the conditions under which the mentally ill inmate had been held. The inmate, who was awarded a precedent-setting $5-million judgment, argued that his mental condition had deteriorated during the two months that he had been held in solitary confinement.
"Since graduation from law school, I have been able to take my theatre training and apply it to the art of trial practice," Belzer says. "Using my prior theatre experience, I have spent the last 10 years teaching trial skills to lawyers from all over the United States and Puerto Rico, as well as Israel and the People's Republic of China."
Belzer, who received an Alumni Achievement award in 2008 for his service in the legal field, is a frequent legal-affairs commentator on broadcasts such as Good Morning America, The O'Reilly Factor, and Geraldo at Large.