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For Judge Keenan, it’s all about the people

The Hon. Richard A. Keenan, who got his first job with the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office in 1979, is retiring at the end of 2010. Vasiliy Baziuk

The Hon. Richard A. Keenan said recently his work has been all about the people.

He has made lasting friendships with many people throughout his lengthy legal career — people he admires and people he said he will miss after he retires at the end of the year as a Monroe County Court judge.

“Judge Keenan will be missed in the Hall of Justice,” said the Hon. Thomas M. Van Strydonck, administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District. “He’s one of our harder working judges and … has earned the respect of both the prosecution and defense bars. He will be missed by everybody.”

A 1978 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School, Judge Keenan began his career practicing in Buffalo for a short time before joining the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office in the spring of 1979.

The Greece native’s first case involved a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge that he was assigned unexpectedly at the last minute when someone else couldn’t make it to town court. He said he thinks it was in the Henrietta court, but he knows it resulted in a mistrial when the single man on the six-juror panel indicated he would never vote for a guilty verdict.

Judge Keenan said he knew from about the time he was 8 or 9 years old that he wanted to go to law school, but he never expected to become a trial attorney.

“I think there are very few attorneys who are natural trial attorneys,” he said. “I think most attorneys have the ability to be trial attorneys, but it’s not an inherent skill. I thought it would be an interesting position to have. It would allow me to get into the courts as a young attorney and develop my skills. Once I was hired, I found I loved the job.”

Judge Keenan started out as an assistant to then-District Attorney Howard Relin. He prosecuted 55 homicide cases in his 22 years there, including 40 murders. Many were high-profile cases, including the 1994 murder of 4-year-old Kali Ann Poulton.

Judge Keenan had two young sons at the time, and said he became too emotionally involved in the murder trials, particularly those involving children. He asked Charles J. Siragusa, then-first ADA, for other assignments. The office cross-designated him as a federal prosecutor to assist on a case that involved homicides. Judge Siragusa is now seated on the U.S. District Court bench for the Western District of New York.

“There were a lot of important cases,” Judge Keenan said. “I got to meet a lot of wonderful families. Of course, I was meeting them at the worst possible time in their lives.”

He has maintained friendships with many.

Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green also worked with Judge Keenan on many cases, including the Angel Mateo capital murder case. Mateo’s death sentence later was thrown out on appeal, but he is serving a life sentence for the 1996 killing of Juan Rodriguez Matos.

“I worked with him every day — day in and day out for five months,” Green said. “As an attorney and a prosecutor, he was incredibly thorough. He was very well-prepared. He was meticulous in the way he did things.”

Green said he used to kid Judge Keenan in court when he opened files with perfect ruler-straight underlines and passages highlighted with color-coordinated markers. Green said Judge Keenan also treated everyone with respect.

“It didn’t matter if you were the defendant, the prosecutor, prospective jurors or an attorney,” Green said. “From my perspective, I always appreciated that. … He’s a real gentleman.”

Judge Keenan served as first ADA from 1992 to 2000, at which time he won his judicial election.

“I felt it would be a natural progression,” he said. “I found that it was. I moved from being an advocate on high-profile cases to a referee, a judge.”

Because he had worked on so many local cases as a prosecutor, initially he spent a lot of time as an acting supreme court justice in Wayne County and as a Monroe County Family Court judge. He still speaks fondly of the experiences and the people he met in those courtrooms.

“One of the things I have enjoyed is working with young attorneys and seeing young, talented, committed people come into the courts and handle very difficult work, very stressful work,” Judge Keenan said.

He advises younger attorneys to stay motivated and committed to the practice of law, and to enjoy their opportunities to appear in courts and represent clients.

One of the judge’s own mentors has been Jim Morris, a principal of Morris & Morris Attorneys in Brighton, who was a Rochester City Court judge when Judge Keenan joined the district attorney’s office.

In fact Judge Keenan’s wife, Lori Gervasi Keenan, was a city court reporter at the time. Morris said he believes he may have had a hand in their meeting.

“I also performed their wedding in my home,” he said. “I think the world of him and I think the world of his wife.”

An Irondequoit native, his wife is now a court reporter for the supreme court, and she also expects to retire soon. The couple have two sons: Matthew, 26, a financial consultant at AXA Advisors in Brighton; and Christopher, 23, an underwriting specialist at PNC Bank in Philadelphia. Both were graduates of McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton and the University of Dayton in Ohio.

“The judge is the kind of a person a judge should be,” Morris said. “When I think of him, I just think of him as a guy that is of which other judges should aspire to be — someone who has the respect and dignity. He’s the kind of guy that displays that naturally. He’s also too young to retire.”

Judge Keenan, who is proud to have worked with the same law clerk and secretary, Robert Mastrocola and Anne Liebenow, respectively, throughout his judicial tenure, said he is looking forward to teaching forensic science and law.

He recently took on a part-time position, under Dr. J. Richard Ciccone, in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical School.

“I hope they’ll remember me as a hard-working dedicated fair judge who did the best he could to respect the attorneys appearing before him,” Judge Keenan said. “And, to the best of his ability, to see that justice was dispensed.”