(This is a copy of the original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Gambler's confidence fuels lawyer's fight with DFACS
Don Keenan is taking on the child services agency for one just reason --- he hates it.
Bill Torpy - Staff
Wednesday • December 29

Don Keenan has a strategy for winning his legal assault on the state.


He plans to transport 12 adults back to a time when they depended on training wheels, whined at naptime and dreamed of Santa.

"Then they'll live a bone-chilling reality through a 5-year-old's eyes," said Keenan, his voice rising with the indignation of a closing argument summation.

Keenan plans to make jurors see 5-year-old Terrell Peterson starved, burned and beaten. They'll also understand all too well that Terrell was tortured and killed while under the watch of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

Keenan has decided that the best way to fix Georgia's child protective services system is to thump state bureaucrats upside the head with a 2-by-4 in the form of litigation. Terrell's case is his club.

That Keenan can foot such an expensive crusade --- he says he'll take no money for the case --- marks an extraordinary career rebound. A millionaire several times over, the medical malpractice attorney just 15 years ago was deeply in debt and hounded by creditors. But then and now, he had a gambler's confidence that his luck would change and an overdeveloped talent for self-promotion.

Keenan also has a knack for getting juries to see through a child's eyes.

When brain damage nearly blinded a girl, Keenan had an ophthalmologist craft opaque glasses so jurors could glimpse her shadowy world. When a garbage truck backed over a 2-year-old, Keenan attended garbage truck driving school and then shot a video showing a driver's restricted view.

Fighting DFACS is nothing new for Keenan. Fifteen years ago it was Kathy Jo Taylor, a blue-eyed Gwinnett County 2-year-old who was placed into foster care over objections of her aunt and grandmother. They argued they were Kathy Jo's family and they should raise her. But she ended up in a coma in foster care.

In 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court said Georgia could be held responsible for foster children's injuries, the state settled the case and changed the way it monitored foster children.

"I think Kathy Jo touched his heart," said Dennis Collins, the girl's uncle. It also changed his career path and turned him into a crusader.

Keenan has waited for a nasty case like Terrell's to return for another whack at DFACS. The agency was repeatedly warned that Terrell was being neglected and abused. It did little to save him and then misled the public about the agency's role in his life after he ended up dead.

"We have learned when you have a face rather than a statistic, you get change," said Keenan. "We're going to fight a war on all fronts --- in the courtroom, in the Legislature, in the court of public opinion."

Terrell's case certainly has impact. Following on a article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "60 Minutes" has been in Atlanta shooting a story on the case. Keenan, a master of attracting TV lights, will be a central figure in that drama when it airs.

Keenan hopes the state settles and reforms its procedures for handling child abuse and neglect. But, if need be, he looks forward to a courthouse slugfest. He loves a good scrap.

In upcoming months, Keenan vows to crisscross Georgia, filing other child death suits to drum up more publicity and pressure state officials to overhaul DFACS.

What changes is he demanding? First, he wants an ombudsman, "a true outsider who will kick ass and name names." Besides that, he's not sure.

"I'm a great gatherer of facts and presenter of evidence but the solution will have to come from someone else," said Keenan. He's lining up national experts to testify about what works elsewhere. "It takes someone there ramming the front door of the castle to make it happen."

Meet Don Keenan: institutional battering ram. One adorned in a $3,000 hand-tailored English suit. Size 50.

A fleshy, freckled stump of a man with an engaging manner and self-promotional streak, Keenan has gotten rich pointing fingers and assigning blame.

Keenan has always gravitated to the Big Case and the Big Cause. Money wasn't as important as being in the mix. He knew the payoff would come. And it did. He has won more than $70 million in settlements and verdicts. His share is the lifeblood for his crusades.

"If you don't have the bankroll to stay with these 800-pound gorillas, then they'll crush you," reasons Keenan. "I don't want to do Don Quixote things when I'm 46."

A plaintiff's attorney lives off 33 percent contingency fees and is a high-stakes gambler by trade. Keenan routinely spends a couple hundred grand on a case without being assured of a penny. Keenan has learned to pick battles more carefully, usually those with a better chance of payoff. This year he accepted 11 cases out of the 436 he reviewed.

"Keenan has made a gazillion dollars but he tempers it with his good work for the children; he's putting his money where his mouth is," said Bruce Harvey, the pony-tailed defense attorney whose office is next to Keenan's. "He won't get money out of DFACS. He just hates DFACS."

Keenan's tenaious do-gooding is also well known nationally in the legal community. Not only does he specialize in children who have been maimed, crippled or killed, but the Keenan Foundation is forever sponsoring clothing drives, gun-lock campaigns, meals for the homeless and children's rights seminars.

"The longer I know him, the more I keep looking for the window to see the real Don Keenan, that it's an act," said Reese Williams, president-elect of the American Board of Trial Attorneys. "But he's like a priest, someone who seems too good to be true."

The tailored suits, Cuban cigars, Mercedes coupe and mountain cabin reveal that Keenan hasn't taken a vow of poverty, however. He is the most recent president of the Inner Circle of Advocates, a national fraternity of high-profile litigators. Since 1994, he has given 100 speeches nationwide on topics such as closing argument techniques, cross examination and jury selection.

This is all far-removed from New Bem, N.C., population 1,500, Keenan's hometown. Keenan's father was killed in a boiler accident when he was 2 and he was raised by his mother, who was a nurse, and his grandparents.

He came to Atlanta to attend the now-defunct Atlanta Law School and lived in the Luckie Street YMCA.

"When I got out of Atlanta Law School, an unaccredited school, I didn't have a prayer of being hired by anybody; I had to hang out a shingle," Keenan said. He still fancies the underdog and likes to hire night-school grads. They're hungrier. And won't dodge a streetfight.

As a young attorney, Keenan showed up at Fulton County's Monday morning arraignments to dredge up drunk-and-disorderly and flasher cases at $15 a pop.

But while hustling society's dregs, Keenan also lusted for big cases that would make a splash.

His first big opportunity came from Dr. Carl Drury, a south Georgia activist who fought Gilman Paper Co. over pollution and then lost his privileges at Gilman Hospital in St. Marys. The case made national attention when Ralph Nader's Raiders alleged the paper mill conspired to ruin Drury.

In 1976, Drury hired a 23-year-old nobody from Atlanta who struck him as an ambulance chaser. They filed a civil rights case against the mill. It was seen as a crazy idea.

"He came soliciting the case. He knew it was going to go somewhere, it'd be a prominent case," recalls Drury. "He needed notoriety and needed to slay a dragon. I didn't have much money. But I had a dragon."

Keenan and lawyer Scott Sanders faced an array of established lawyers during two trials that ended in mistrials. "It was sleeping in your car, eating peanut butter and knocking on people's doors at night," Keenan said.

In 1982, Drury settled the case for $250,000.

A year later, Sanders sued Keenan, alleging Keenan set up a "sham corporation" to shield his assets. It was one of some 80 lawsuits filed against Keenan by creditors in the 1980s. Everyone, it seemed, was after him: former associates, court reporters, travel agencies, banks. Even a jewelry store.

"He had financial problems, but it's no reason to screw someone," said Sanders, who settled with Keenan for $42,500.

"I let principle get 10 miles down the road from practicality; the bills just kept piling up and piling up," said Keenan, who also developed a "serious drinking problem" during what he calls the "dark days."

"I was $700,000 to $800,000 under with maybe $10 in my pocket. I felt like a plane going 90 degrees smack into the ground. The debt stopped in 1983 but it took four or five years to dig out."

Keenan said he always knew he would pay back his creditors, it would just take a big payday or two. His luck would change. He just knew it would.

(The financial lawsuits stopped in 1988, although David Bills, an associate and partner of Keenan's for 11 years, left the firm in 1994 and later sued Keenan on contractual issues. The case went to binding arbitration and was settled. The judge took the highly unusual step of sealing the entire file at Keenan's request.)

Jon Peters, an Atlanta medical malpractice attorney and Keenan admirer, heard the whispers in the '80s of Keenan's financial woes. "It was an enigmatic thing: If he's so successful, then why is he stiffing people?" he said.

Peters met Keenan in 1983 while prosecuting James Walraven, who was convicted of killing a woman in her bathtub and suspected of murdering two other women the same way. The killings terrorized suburban Atlantans in 1981 at the same time the city was reeling from the Missing and Murder Children cases.

News coverage of the Walraven trial was all over local television, and Keenan took it on for no pay. But he spent freely on the defense. Peters was impressed by his opponent's doggedness and innovation.

"He did a mock trial; that's the first time I had seen that," said Peters. "It was also the first time I had seen a jury consultant."

Keenan says he dragged a bathtub into court to prove a point. Peters doesn't remember that.

Walraven was found guilty but Keenan proudly points out he kept his client out of the electric chair. Peters says prosecutors would have happily plea-bargained the case in exchange for a life sentence.

After that case, Keenan changed his practice from criminal defense work to plaintiff's litigation.

"He's a masterful self-promoter," chuckled Peters. "He just kind of declared himself a player and then became one."

"I just got tired of criminals," said Keenan. "It's not like on TV, getting the innocent man off."

And they generally have little money, unlike the insurance companies that cover doctors and hospitals.

"I make no bones about it, they are very lucrative," said Keenan.

But success is not without a toll. He divorced five years ago from Therese, the marriage a victim of constant traveling and devotion to work. During a trial, Keenan becomes consumed by 16-hour workdays and red-eye strategy sessions

Keenan, who touts himself as "The Children's Lawyer," has no kids of his own. He often wishes he had children but then thinks he'd worry too much. And the workaholic ways that mortally wounded his marriage would prevent him from being the father he'd like to be.

In preparing for a malpractice case against a Cobb County pediatrician this month, Keenan and his staff worked weekends and nights. He spent much of Thanksgiving Day alone in his North Georgia cabin reviewing the focus groups, the mock trials and computerized Power Point presentations.

The case concerned 6-year-old Erric Wilson, brain-damaged as an infant by hydrocephalis, water pressure on the brain. Keenan had settled with the insurance company and with two other doctors but a Cobb pediatrician chose to fight.

During the trial, Keenan painted the doctor as a cog in a money-hungry HMO.

In closing arguments, Keenan came across like a concerned uncle. He strode the room like John Madden, his short, thick arms chopping to make points. His baritone boomed. He thumped his chest. He snorted, laughed and got angry. He wanted $11 million to make things right. This kid will need diapers until 2067, Keenan reasoned, long after we're all gone.

Defense attorney Jay Train, a boyish-looking 36 with a subdued style, promised jurors he would be briefer than Keenan and pointed out he used no Power Point shows. "Our case is this," he said, waving a manila doctor's chart. He mentioned that Keenan's team used five attorneys. He paged through a big notepad. It was notably low-tech and he played underdog well.

Train parried blame back to the mother. It was she, not the doctor, who missed several visits, he said.

In three hours the jury returned a verdict in favor of the doctor.

"Attorney Train was fighting for his life out there; he didn't have the guns the Keenan Law Firm had," said juror Mike Wilson.

The following day, Keenan sat solemnly in his office. Sure, the verdict stung. He's not used to losing.

"With a plaintiff's practice you can never, never, never depend on one or two cases," said Keenan. Last summer, he spent $329,000 on a North Carolina malpractice case that deadlocked. "You play the averages. You can go eight or nine months without much and then in a short time make incredible amounts of money."

More big paydays will come. He's sure of it. A malpractice trial starts in South Carolina next month. Then he's on to West Virginia, then to Macon and later Kansas City.

And one day DFACS will be on the docket. And a new crusade begins.

ON THE WEB: Don Keenan takes on DFACS:

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