OEA Face That Wouldn't Lie Jeff Kearney Flies High, Wins Big

BY SHANNON CANARD
Fort Worth Business Press

Jeff Kearney, a criminal trial lawyer with a boutique firm, likes high-profile cases - almost as much as he enjoys winning them. And he has had a string of both.

Last Spring, he accepted Chante Mallard's case. Mallard is the 26-year-old nurse's aide accused of hitting Gregory Glenn Biggs with her car, driving home with the man lodged in her windshield and parking the car in her garage while Biggs died, still trapped in the windshield. The case is set to go to trial June 16.

That's one.

Kearney is also representing Hazim Elashi, co-owner of the Richardson-based company, InfoCom Corp. and one of five brothers accused of doing business with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. The indictment against the company accuses the brothers of illegally exporting computer equipment and technology to Libya and Syria. The trial is set for Oct. 6.

That's two.

Here's two more recent and notable victories.

Last November, Nelson Thibodeaux, a former Colleyville city councilman, and five others working for All American Telephone were acquitted of wire and mail fraud charges stemming from slamming long distance customers. The jury returned not guilty verdicts on 110 counts.

And then there was the James Levi Byrd case -- a Fort Worth man sentenced to 30 years for a robbery he didn't commit. After James had served five of those years, Byrd's brother admitted to the crime. Kearney took the case, arguing for a pardon. He spent 100-150 hours of the firm's time on the case, without pay. Governor Rick Perry commuted Byrd's sentence to time served and Byrd made it home to his family in time for Christmas 2002.

Robert Hirschhorn, a national jury consultant of Cathy E. Bennett & Associates Inc. of Lewisville, has worked a dozen trials with Kearney since the mid-1980s.

"I can tell you without a doubt that Jeff is one of the finest lawyers in America, at least when it comes to jury selection. And I've worked with the Lloyd Blacks of the world, the Lisa Blues - the biggest high-profile criminal lawyers in America. And I'm telling you, jurors love Jeff Kearney," he said.

"He's genuine. He's honest. I would underscore the word honest. He's real. And he's got a way about him - the guy's got an affidavit face. He's got a face that wouldn't lie. Jurors pick up on that. They don't think for one minute that Jeff Kearney is slick."

In the dozen mock trials Kearney has recruited Hirschhorn to work on, he never has lost the subsequent case. "Jury selection is the most critical aspect of the trial. It is the leading factor in the case's outcome," Kearney said.

"Jeff is one of the few attorneys who really appreciates that case results are created in jury selection and he is truly the best in America at communicating with the jury," Hirschhorn said.

So good, that Kearney is recruited to speak often on jury selection. He is a faculty member of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Project's Criminal Trial Advocacy Institute and teaches hundreds of young lawyers.

"Young lawyers call him all the time for advice and counsel. He is a mentor for many outstanding young lawyers. He never hesitates to give his time to help those young lawyers grow and learn," said Barry Sorrels, a colleague of the Dallas firm Sorrels & Udashen and a long-time friend.

Kearney, 54, was born in Galveston and later moved to Waco. He detoured to Fort Worth for a business degree from TCU, returning to Waco for a J.D. from Baylor University Law School.

"He was one of the great criminal defense lawyers in Tarrant County and the state," Kearney said. "He took me under his wing for some reason and I learned a lot from him."

Kearney learned to love the excitement surrounding a courtroom victory. "It's wonderful to win and losing is horrible," he said.

While in the DA's office, he learned the value of getting along with the judges and court staff, some of the most important people involved with a case.

His initial cases were mostly court-appointed, but quickly began earning referrals as he gained a reputation among other attorneys, witnesses and even jurors.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've heard jurors come up to him after a case and say Mr. Kearney, can I please have your card? I hope I never need your services, but if I do, you're the guy I'm going to hire,'" Hirschhorn said.

Kearney decided early in his career to represent white-collar defendants such as bankers, lawyers and business people. Nearly 90 percent of his casework today comes from lawyer referrals -- civil lawyers or civil law firms that don't take criminal cases.

"What is really amazing is that not only among the elite criminal lawyers is he admired for his trial skills, but also his integrity. Everyone respects Jeff, both professionally and personally," Sorrels said.

Kearney has been a criminal attorney in Fort Worth for 27 years, handling state criminal law prosecutions from DWI cases to capital murder. He is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

But he also takes federal cases while most criminal lawyers restrict their areas of practice to state court, he said.

In 1994, Kearney went to San Antonio to work the Branch Davidian case. He took three months off, living and working in San Antonio at his expense representing one of the 11 Davidians charged with conspiracy to murder the four federal agents that died in the Feb. 28 raid the previous year.

It was a "once-in-a-career case," said Tim Evans of the firm, Evans, Gandy, Daniel & Moore, a lawyer who tries multi-defendant cases with Kearney.

"I argued with him about it. I said, Jeff, if we do this for nothing, we could get in a black hole here and never get out of this case.' He said, look, these types of cases don't come around but once in a career. I think we ought to do this.'"

Evans thought about it.

"I said if you're crazy enough to do this, I'm crazy enough. So we got in it and it was the best thing I've ever done. His cross-examination of one of the witnesses in that case is something I give speeches about."

Kearney's client was acquitted of the murder charge, but was found guilty of gun charges.

"I did it because it was the right thing to do," Kearney said. "It was a rewarding experience that took my practice to a different level."

After the internationally publicized case, his federal business blossomed. His boutique practice has grown considerably and to accommodate, Kearney has leased an additional 1,000-square feet for a "war room" in the building where he offices.

Does Kearney ever lose a case? Sure, sometimes.

Tulsa financier Steven Martin Clayton Dodson was sentenced to nine years in prison and ordered to pay $4.7 million in restitution fees to a group of elderly people after he was convicted of mail fraud and money laundering.

In 1996, Walter L. Sentenn Jr., general counsel and senior vice president of the defunct Pelican State Mutual Insurance Co., was sentenced to three years and nine months in federal prison for diverting premium payments for personal gain.

Client Orlando Cordia Hall was convicted in a U.S. District court on four counts of kidnapping in the 1994 abduction and death of Arlington teenager Lisa Rene.

These days, Kearney is spending less time golfing with friends at Rivercrest, and more time with his wife, Olivia, and on the types of intriguing cases he enjoys.

(They have a college-age daughter majoring in fashion merchandising, with no interest, whatsoever, in the law.)

According to Hirschhorn, Kearney never will be a run-of-the-mill-type lawyer.

"Before law school, you act one way, you dress one way, you think one way and then you go to law school and you have the operation - the operation I call the OElawbotomy,' and now you act differently, you dress differently, you talk differently and think differently. My view of Jeff Kearney is that thank goodness he got the law degree, but he didn't have the operation. Because almost every other lawyer I know had the operation. And I can say this because I got a law degree also. I'm still working on reversing the operation," Hirschhorn said.

Contact Canard at scanard@bizpress.net.