Alum of the Month Feb. '17
Few lawyers have the same commitment to service and ensuring success as John Kellner. From a Marine Corps family, Kellner has been commissioned as an officer in the Marines, served as a Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) officer in the Marine Corps, and is an accomplished cold-case prosecutor.
“Cold cases may be harder to try, but they let victims—and criminals—know that we will pursue justice for everyone, even after the trail has gone cold,” Kellner said.
Kellner’s story begins in Virginia, where he was born. His father served in the Marine Corps for 27 years, which greatly impacted Kellner. He moved a lot, spending significant time in North Carolina and Chile. When Kellner went to college, he chose the warm climate at the University of Florida. He graduated from business school in 2003 with degrees in finance and Spanish. It was during his time there that his own military career began.
“I’ve always wanted to serve in the Marines, and I’m sure that is partially because of my father,” Kellner said. “I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps right after graduating college, and then went straight to law school.”
It was law school that first brought Kellner to Colorado. There are no Marine Corps bases in the Centennial State, so it was never a place Kellner would have landed during his upbringing. But he applied—and was accepted—to the University of Colorado Law School.
“I flew to Boulder to check out the city because I’d never even been to Colorado before,” Kellner said. “I got to meet with Dean David Getches, who was such a personable and engaging man. So between the staff and faculty, and the quality of life in Boulder, it was an easy decision.”
Most law students remember being terrified on day one. With classes, a huge reading load, and the task of meeting new people, the thought of the first day of law school can invoke shudders and winces. But for Kellner, the day has a fonder memory.
“(I met) my now-wife, Sarah Kellner (’06), at the afternoon barbecue after the first day of classes,” Kellner said. “I made some sort of lame joke to her about tofu burgers, which I’d never encountered before coming to Boulder.”
PICTURED (left): John and Sarah cheering on the Buffs at their 10-year law school reunion.
Kellner and Sarah, a real estate litigation partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Denver, now have two busy preschoolers and remain friends with many of the people they met at Colorado Law.
When Kellner graduated in 2006, he left Colorado to pursue a career as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps. In that role, he lived in Virginia and California, and was deployed to Afghanistan, all while serving different roles within the JAG Corps. Now a successful prosecutor, Kellner originally had different ambitions.
“Ironically, I wanted to be a defense lawyer at first, but the only open job at my base was as a prosecutor,” he said. “Once I got started, I was lucky enough to find great mentors to keep me going and I was assigned some complicated and interesting cases that sparked my interest and challenged me as a lawyer. I learned so much in that role that I still use today.”
Kellner spent almost five and a half years as a JAG before moving back to Colorado to become a deputy district attorney for the Boulder County DA’s office. This meant leaving active duty with the Marines— though he accepted a commission in the Marine Corps Reserves, where he still works. His current position is as an operational law attorney for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). In his prosecutorial role, he has developed a reputation: he’s the guy who can prosecute cold cases.
“In 2011 I got to try my first ‘cold case’ murder trial with Ryan Brackley, who at the time was running the cold case unit in the Boulder DA’s office,” Kellner said. “Together, we convicted Michael Clark of the first-degree murder of Marty Grisham for a shooting that happened back in 1994. It was a turning point for me in my career. I found real satisfaction in taking on a difficult case and providing justice to the victim’s family and the community after waiting for so long for the murderer to face trial.”
That successful case led to Kellner being offered a position with the 18th Judicial District’s DA’s Office, where his job was specifically to investigate and prosecute cold case homicides in the office’s newly formed cold case unit.
“My first case there involved the 1996 disappearance of Kimberly ‘Kimmy’ Greene-Medina,” Kellner said. “No one had seen her alive since then. Along with my trial team, we were able to convict her husband of first-degree murder in one of the few no-body murder trials ever tried in Colorado. That case was one of my hardest because of both the passage of time and the fact that we did not have a body or a crime scene to forensically examine.”
In his four years at the 18th Judicial District, Kellner has obtained murder convictions in seven cold case trials. Three of those involved a gang-related shooting of an innocent bystander that occurred on Christmas night 2011. The victim, a Sudanese refugee who came to Colorado to escape the violence of that country, lived in the same apartment complex and drove a similar car as a rival gang member. He was executed steps away from his apartment where his wife and five children were sleeping.
“I am particularly proud of those cases because I was able to show the victim’s family that in the United States we will pursue justice for all victims,” Kellner said. That hit home with the victim’s wife, who testified during the sentencing that:
" …in my previous home country the Sudan, where we the black African are second and even third class citizens without the same rights before any law of that country, my victim husband’s life would not have been valued as it is here in America. Today, we witness the rule of law has taken its course, a principle which we have come to deeply appreciate and dearly uphold."
Kellner feels strongly about pursuing justice for people who think it has passed them by. “With cold cases, oftentimes the victim’s family has lost faith that their loved one’s murderer will be held accountable. It feels good to give them back hope that justice will prevail.”
Kellner’s success has drawn the attention of his colleagues. In 2016, he won the prestigious Robert R. Gallagher Award, also referred to as the “Colorado Prosecutor of the Year Award,” which is given by the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. He was also recently promoted to chief deputy district attorney, in which role he now supervises and trains DAs in multiple criminal divisions while still prosecuting some of the more serious cases, including cold cases, in his jurisdiction. Kellner’s career shows a history of success where others have given up. His career and commitment to his work show that his success is well deserved.
PICTURED (top): John (left) and George Brauchler ('95), district attorney of the 18th Judidicial District, at the Colorado District Attorneys' Council awards ceremony when John was presented the 2016 Robert R. Gallagher Prosecutor of the Year Award.
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
Our weekly poker game that sometimes got a little big, a little out of control, and may or may not have included some faculty.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
That your first job out of law school won’t define your career. Many of my friends are practicing in a different area of law than they originally expected, or have found a unique niche, and they’re happier for it.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
It’s so important to find a mentor in your field. You may not be assigned a mentor so you actually have to seek one out. The best way to do that is to look up CU grads that have been practicing for a couple years and just ask to meet for coffee. Most lawyers are incredibly busy, but they’re usually willing to help.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
Lieutenant Colonel Dan Mori was my first mentor and boss as a prosecutor in the Marine Corps. He taught me to get out of the office and meet witnesses, to go to the crime scene, and how to work with law enforcement to build a better case.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
Finding a good balance between my family and my career. Having two trial lawyers in the family makes that hard, but we’ve found a way to put the kids first by working together as a team to support one another’s careers. That way, when one of us is in trial and working late, the other is present for the kids.