TRADITION OF EXCELLENCE AWARD
Don C. Keenan
6 June 2008
To the judiciary present this morning, to the General practice section leaders and to its members I sincerely thank you for the privilege of this award.
When I first received the call I felt undeserved and as I walked into the Center this morning I was equally convinced that I was undeserving but having been proceeded by three of my fellow award recipients, Ed, Mike and the Judge, I am even more convinced that I am undeserving but I thank you nonetheless.
Charles spoke of my passion, which is probably derived in part from my Irish 100% roots. As a trial lawyer it doesn’t hurt having an Irish DNA and the good fight. You probably heard about the Irish fellow walking down the street when he came upon a brawl, a street fight, to which he proclaimed “is this a private fight or can anybody join in?”
I have sought out a lot of fights in my career but now I don’t have to go looking, they come to me.
As a trial lawyer I know the importance of choosing the most appropriate word to describe intangibles. The word that fits me today is clearly the word humble.
Please understand that as a wee boy I had only one dream and that was to become one of you, a lawyer. I grew up poor in a small town with only several lawyers but yet they were the beacons of righteousness, they were always there to right the wrong, lead the civic fundraising drive and to be role models for all of us. So it was fairly simple as a young boy to dream of becoming a lawyer. So therefore it is humbling for me to receive this award in particular because it comes from my peers, it comes from my friends and I want you to know that all I have ever wanted to be is you and I am proud to be among you.
Charles spoke of my roots and I need to tell you that I graduated law school and got married in the same month. I met her when I was 20 and she was 19 and she has always been my greatest supporter, friend and my rock. I rented office space, had stationary printed even before I knew the results of my bar, some would say that was over confidence others would say it was just stupid.
My legal career has not been without despair and burnout. I had only practiced five years when I reached my first burnout as a criminal defense lawyer. In the final year I tried four death penalty cases, two of which back to back and none thankfully received the ultimate penalty but I was spent, demoralized. At my lowest point I started practicing law with Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker, three of the most miserable law partners a man could ever have. And they almost took me down. I had decided I had to leave the law heartbroken. As I tell younger lawyers, there will come a time when the road to serendipity will rise up out of the morning fog and present an entirely new, never conceived opportunity and that road will ask: do you have the courage to embark upon that path?
My path came when as many of you recall the dark moments in Atlanta history with the murdered and missing children tragedy in Atlanta in the late 1970’s it was these African-American mothers who reached out to me to help them because governmental officials refused to recognize the possible link between the murders and they were going to engage in civil disobedience to raise public opinion. So my job simply was to get them out of jail and soon because the case became racially polarized, they told me, a young white lawyer, to be their public spokesperson.
I soon found myself sitting as the sole guest on the old Phil Donahue show live TV and his staff obviously had not debriefed Mr. Donahue because he announced to the audience “today ladies and gentlemen we are fortunate enough to have one of the country’s leading child advocates”. Shocked doesn’t describe it. I looked around the stage and I was the only one sitting there and he was obviously wrong because I had never represented a child. So, within a millisecond I had to make a decision of whether to interrupt him and correct him or simply to weather the storm for a couple of minutes.
Well for an hour I spoke on behalf of these forgotten children and after the show it was clear the public perceived my role as representing the children’s memories and legacy and to them I was a child advocate.
I called my office from the studio and to my additional surprise I had received over a dozen phone calls from parents around the country wanting me to represent their injured or deceased children.
I knew in an instant without any reflection that to represent children was the purpose of my life; I took to it like Labrador takes to water and through the years have never faltered in being a passionate child advocate. The road to serendipity, that you Jesus saved my life.
But as all careers will go, I reached a second burnout over 12 years ago, which was three years after the non-profit Keenans Kids Foundation was started. Up until that time the activities of KKF had been pure philanthropic. The clothing drive (20,000 items a clothes a year) and the bologna and cheese sandwiches (we are up to 427,237 sandwiches) both projects benefit at-risk kids),. We also operated a transitional house for foster children exiting foster care who otherwise would have been dumped on the street at 18 with nothing but a “good luck kid” from the state.
Recently you may have heard of the Murphy House Project we are doing. In two weeks we ground break on a new home for 23 adopted Downs Syndrome kids most with severe medical needs. Fact many of the rehab experts and life care specialists I use in my children cases donated their skill and time to make the Murphy House state of the art.
But back to my passion for prevention: over 12 years ago after handling my 30th playground injury, I realized that I was seeing the same unthinkable, preventable children’s tragedies occur time and time again.
It was a the little 2 ½ year old girl, Hannah who was coming down the sliding board in in a public playground when a huge dead tree limb cracked under its weight falling down and crushing Hannah, putting her in a coma to which she passed after 30 days in a coma. We discovered that the tree limb had been ordered to be cut down 3 times over a 2 year period.
I was full of anger and despair that I was not doing anything to prevent these tragedies. Let me tell you now in complete sincerity that if I never represent another injured or deceased child I will be a happy man.
But the road to serendipity rose again for me and opened up the whole opportunity for me in the field of prevention. First was our playground safety program and nine other projects have followed to include the “365 Ways to Keep Kids Safe” book, which is a national best seller and soon in its second edition. We have published a monthly safety column to over 130 newspapers and children and parent magazines around the country and my life was reenergized.
Now I can say I am part of the prevention and not simply playing cleanup.
There are those that see my role as a lawyer and safety expert as a disconnect. I was invited to dinner with Oprah and she invited several high profile friends of hers to join us and at the dinner one of them remarked “what business do you have in talking about child safety. You are not a public health official, you are not a doctor?” And before I could answer, Oprah, who is an opinionated lady jumped in and said “here’s the man who sees what happens when things are not safe. He has the absolute right in fact the duty to speak out on prevention.
Given the many Judges in the room this morning, let we briefly switch gears: permit me to share with you a moment of one of my revelations about Judges and it came in 1992 when I was national president of the American Board of Trial Advocates and I was invited by the State Department to take a delegation of lawyers to both Czechoslovakia later Russia to demonstrate the civil jury trial. You may recall that the Berlin wall came down in 1989 so in 1992 these countries were just experiencing the first of what democracy really is and therefore our role was to demonstrate civil jury trial by lecturing in the law schools, speaking in the judicial training centers and ultimately putting on mock jury trials.
As most Americans going abroad, I felt I had something to tell them and it was we Americans who had a true appreciation of democracy and the justice system. Of course I was naive and wrong because during the jury deliberations in Moscow where we used a diverse jury of mill workers, college professors, plant managers, all types. A large hunk of man, a mill worker, stood up in the middle of the deliberations and through an interpreter told us “I must tell you (with his hands trembling) that for the first time I feel important. My vote counts just as much as you, Mr. Mill Manager and you Mr. Professor because for the first time in my life I get to say how things are in this community”.
What a profound revelation on the importance of the jury system from a former communist worker. How often in our country do we have jurors make similar comments of appreciation? No, in our country people do anything they can to escape jury trial and if they do serve clearly the words appreciative do not come to mind.
The second and equally profound realization that I came to was the importance of the independence of the judiciary. You see in Russia we were told they had what’s called “telephone justice” where the judge would hear the case and at some point would receive a phone call from some anonymous unidentified source who would then tell the judge what the verdict would be. The judges were merely puppets of the politicians and were anything but independent.
Sadly I must admit that prior to my Russia experience I had no real appreciation for the role of judges in our justice system. The Judges are responsible for creating a level playing field and making sure that everything is fair, otherwise we would be like the Russians. So I say with a heavy heart that to see how judges today are compensated and to see that they often become the target of relenting media attacks it is nothing short of shameful what we do to judges and frankly many of us lawyers do little if anything to stop it.
As a young lawyer you know little about how much lawyers are compensated but as you grow older you come to the profound realization that 99 percent of our trial judges could leave the bench and assume positions that would pay double, triple or quadruple what their judicial salary . But yet without complaint they serve and they serve honorably against the backdrop of politicians cutting their pay raises and the media attacks. We as lawyers owe them more than respect; we owe them our strongest defense to do what is right for them.
I have probably visited too long but permit me one other remark. I have thanked Charles, thanked you, my peers and thanked the judges. Permit me now to give a special thanks to the hundreds of children who have given me the privilege to represent them.
May I leave you with this story; it is the story of newborn Daniel. Back in 1984 an obstetrician negligently delivered him causing him 14 fractures from improper forceps. It occurred in Georgia and prior to Daniel’s case there had never been an obstetrical malpractice verdict in favor of a child in Georgia history but yet Daniel’s case was different. His parents worked three different jobs. One job they called the “pill” job simply because it provided the money for the drugs to control his seizures. The doctors had simply given up on Daniel telling the parents that he would never talk, walk, express human emotions and that it would be best for them to institutionalize him and go on with their lives. As with so many of my parents they rise up in the face of this adversity and say no, we want something better. Well, with the help of the jury and the judge a verdict came forth, which at that time was a record verdict, giving the parents the rehabilitative tools to bring quality to Daniel’s life. That was 24 years ago.
I am pleased to report that four years ago I took Daniel to his first Brave’s game. He has a vocabulary of 40 to 60 words, clearly he can walk, although he will never work or live independently, he has thoughts, he has emotions and it is all because of the jury and what they did for him.
Once a year I never quite know when, I always receive a call from Daniel, he dials the number himself and our receptionist, “under penalty of death” is instructed to track me down wherever I am and make that call connected and it is always the same. It starts with “Mr. Attorney Don Keenan this is Daniel. How are you?”, “Fine” I say “Daniel, how are you doin?” To which he says “are you still my lawyer?” Of course I say “Daniel, I will always be your lawyer.” And then the last thing he always says is “well I better let you go so you can help the other children.” Then I tell him I love him and he always says “I love you too.”
So, ladies and gentlemen, I sincerely thank you for the privilege of this award and I think you understand why it is that I will never retire, it just doesn’t get any better”.