Jeff Kearney: Hall of Fame lawyer, fierce advocate, compassionate friend

🕐 8 min read

The first thing everyone notices when stepping into Jeff Kearney’s Fort Worth law office is a large portrait of a wolf on the wall.

Oftentimes, those passing by Kearney’s office suite in One Museum Place notice the arresting painting through the glass doors and come inside to inquire or take a closer look.

The artwork is by Greg Westfall, a friend and former associate of Kearney’s, who interpreted the animal with striking turquoise-colored fur set against a black background. But it is the fierce look in the wolf’s golden eyes that says it all: this creature gets the job done.

It is also illustrative of the career of the lawyer who owns the painting.

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“I’ve made my career cleaning up messes,” said Kearney. The inspiration for the painting was actor Harvey Keitel’s character Winston Wolf, known as “The Wolf,” whose job it was to mop up after his gangster pals in the movie Pulp Fiction, Kearney said.

Kearney is a sought-after criminal defense lawyer and trial litigator, specializing in representation of prominent and high-profile clients who find themselves or their children on the wrong side of the law.

Doctors, lawyers, judges, business executives and professional athletes are among his many clients, who face charges ranging from intoxication manslaughter and murder to fraud and money laundering.

In more than four decades of practicing law, Kearney his built a stellar reputation within the legal community and has earned many awards and honors, including being inducted into the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Hall of Fame in 2015. Due to his high standing in legal circles, Kearney is often tapped by fellow lawyers to assist in high-profile cases where expert legal hands are needed. That was the case when he was brought in by Houston lawyer David Gerger to help with the recent trial of Mark Forkner, a former chief technical pilot for Boeing and the only person to be charged in connection with crashes of the Boeing 737 Max jets in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 – crashes that killed 346 people. The deadly crashes led to the grounding of all Max jets in service.

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Forkner had left Boeing in Seattle and was residing in Keller and working for Southwest Airlines when he was indicted in 2021 for “scheming to defraud Boeing’s U.S. based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice news release.

Forkner was accused of providing the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group with “false, inaccurate and incomplete information” about a new part of the flight controls for the 737 Max called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), according to the government.

Gerger was tapped to defend Forkner because of his success with a swift acquittal in the case of a BP rig engineer who was charged with violating the federal Clean Water Act and manslaughter in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Because Forkner’s trial was scheduled in Fort Worth before U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, Gerger wanted a local attorney on his defense team and was directed by recommendation to Kearney.

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Customarily, a local attorney’s role is limited in such cases but in this one, Gerger split duties with Kearney during last month’s trial.

Defense attorneys argued that, contrary to prosecutors’ claims, Forkner was never informed by engineers on a separate 737 Max development team of changes to the MCAS.

A congressional investigation involving the Transportation Department and several other government agencies uncovered multiple other issues that led to the crashes, including design problems unrelated to MCAS and maintenance and flight crew mistakes.

Two months before the trial started, Boeing had agreed to a settlement of more than $2.5 billon, including $243.6 million as a criminal penalty, $1.77 billion in compensation to 737 max airline customers and $500 million in compensation for relatives and beneficiaries of crash victims.

“Boeing was determined to be ‘too big to fail’,” Kearney said. “So Boeing makes a deal with the government, Boeing executives get a pass and our client becomes the scapegoat.”

“Fortunately, the jury saw through this and acquitted him after deliberating for just two hours,” Kearney said.

Gerger credits Kearney’s courtroom acumen for the jury’s quick decision.

“Juries associate the lawyer with the client and want to see how much the lawyer cares, Gerger said. ”Jeff is so sincere and such a good person that they acquit Jeff and many times the client.”

The Forkner case represents what Kearney considers his mission as a defense attorney.

“It really defines what we do and who we are,” Kearney said. “It’s about government overreach against citizens.” He said the overreach is often driven by political agendas.

This was not Kearney’s only high-profile case of this type.

In 1994, Kearney volunteered pro bono to be part of the defense team for 12 surviving members of the Branch Davidian sect who were charged with murder and murder-conspiracy in the death of federal agents.

The charges resulted from the bloody and fiery siege that ended a 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement officials and members of the religious sect at its compound near Waco on April 19, 1993.

Besides four federal agents, six sect members died in a shootout and 76 other Branch Davidians, including leader David Koresh, were killed a fire that broke out after federal agents launched a tear gas attack on the compound.

Kearney represented one of the 11 sect members in the nearly two-month trial in San Antonio in 1994. A 12th person who was indicted reached a plea agreement in the case.

Defense attorneys argued that government agents overreached by ambushing the Branch Davidian compound, where they suspected illegal weapons were stockpiled.

Kearney said the testimony presented at the trial exposed unsubstantiated claims and missing evidence, suggesting a possible government cover-up.

In the end, the jury acquitted the 11 Branch Davidians on murder conspiracy charges but convicted seven, including Kearney’s client, on lesser charges.

“You’re not going to walk out with hand grenades strapped across your chest and go free,” Kearney said. The client served 10 years in federal prison.

As a source of pride and a continuing reminder, Kearney keeps a framed photo of the defense team and a framed courtroom sketch on a wall in his office.

Another acquittal that remains a source of pride for Kearney came in the high-profile case of New Orleans police Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, who had been charged with complicity in the death of a black man during the looting and tense atmosphere in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Although Scheuermann was acquitted of the criminal charges, he opted to retire after an internal investigation found that he violated department rules, according to media reports.

Although not all of Kearney’s cases have ended in acquittals, he said he continues to thrive on the work and look forward to the next case. He has no plans to retire.

“I love doing what I’m doing,” Kearney said. “It doesn’t feel like work to me because I enjoy it so much.”

Born and raised in Waco, Kearney attended Texas Christian University and fell in love with Fort Worth. But after earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration, he determined it might boost his career to go to law school.

He returned to Waco to attend Baylor Law School, which offered a unique program on “how to be a trial lawyer in Texas.”

Afterwards, he returned to Fort Worth, where he went to work as a law clerk for the late State District Judge Byron Matthews. Kearney said Matthews became his mentor and they enjoyed a long professional relationship.

After his clerkship, Kearney went to work as a prosecutor in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office. Then he hung out his shingle as a criminal defense lawyer.

When Matthews retired from the bench, he took a position as counsel to Kearney’s law firm.

In recognition of their long friendship, Kearney keeps a large photo of Matthews astride a horse on the wall in his office behind his desk.

Matthews was a breeder and longtime participant in cutting-horse competition. He was a founding member of the National Cutting Horse Association and then served as president for two terms. Matthews also served on the board of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show for 40 years.

Kearney never shared Matthews’ passion for horsemanship, preferring golf or travel with his wife Olivia when he has a chance.

Kearney’s skill as a litigator and his warm, friendly nature have earned him wide respect and admiration among fellow attorneys.

Frank DeSalvo, who tapped Kearney to help with the New Orleans case, calls Kearney “a good friend and a very good lawyer.”

Robert Hirschhorn, an attorney and expert in jury selection and trial consultation, said: “A lot of lawyers have a lot of skills but not a lot of lawyers have a lot of compassion. Jeff Kearney has compassion the size of Texas.”

Hirschhorn said he has worked on jury selection in Kearney’s cases for many years.

“If a loved one of mine had a serious legal problem, the first lawyer I would call is Jeff Kearney,” Hirschhorn said. “He’s not only one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever worked with, he is one of the kindest and most gracious people I have ever met in my life.”

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