Facts & Fiction
Jerry O'Keefe was a decorated World War II veteran. He served as a Marine fighter pilot, notching seven enemy kills and becoming an ace in the Battle of Okinawa. As mayor of Biloxi, he denied the Klu Klux Klan a parade permit. His mayoral office was subsequently vandalized and a cross was burned on the lawn of his home. O'Keefe and his wife Annette, at the time of the trial, had 13 children and 38 grandchildren. The scope and scale of his civic accomplishments were such that, at the time of his death, The New York Times did not include a mention of O'Keefe v Loewen in his obituary. Michael Cavanaugh of Biloxi, Mississippi, not Mike Allred, was O’Keefe’s personal and corporate attorney for 30 years. Mr. Cavanaugh has worked personally and publicly against racism in Mississippi. Mike Allred was never Mr. O’Keefe’s personal counsel. He served as counsel and later co-counsel on the Loewen case. He did not appear on the witness standing during the trial. According to an article in The New Yorker magazine, he said during the pre-trial phase that he recognized his own prejudice and was consciously trying to address it. Hal Dockins was an attorney for Mr. O’Keefe based in Jackson, Miss. He suggested that that O’Keefe retain Willie Gary for the trial team after the Loewen Group retained two prominent black attorneys for its team. O’Keefe never watched Gary in court before retaining him. Willie Gary did fly back and forth from his Florida home to Jackson, Mississippi in his personal plane called The Wings of Justice. He had not handled a contract law case prior to the Loewen lawsuit. Gary was never removed from the lead counsel role nor did any of his Florida team leave and go back home. The lead attorney for the Loewen Group was a man.
One of Willie Gary’s most colorful statements did not make it into the film. He noted during the closing argument that small towns often have only one funeral home, and that large funeral corporations in a monopoly market are more apt to engage in price-gouging: "What are you going to do, put grandma in a casket on your flatbed truck and drive around looking for a funeral home?" he said. Jeff O'Keefe, son of Jerry O'Keefe and president of Bradford O'Keefe Funeral Homes, spent two days on the witness stand, October 4-5, 1995. The 4th of October was his birthday. A large number of the O'Keefe children attended the trial and, at one point, a member of the Loewen team complained that their presence was prejudicial to their client. Following the verdict, the Loewen Group claimed that it was discriminated against because it was Canadian. However, the majority Black jury elected as its foreman, Glen Millen, a retired electrical engineer born and raised in Canada and remained active in Canadian affairs after moving to Mississippi. Loewen acknowledged after the trial that Gary brought both substance and a compelling style into the courtroom. He told the New York Times, "Willie Gary is a personality that is unique, and so I think our legal counsel was blindsided, too. My counsel -- they're gentlemen, not street fighters." After compensating his attorneys and replenishing the finances of his businesses, Mr. and Mrs. O'Keefe undertook a wide-ranging divestment to family and charitable giving. A key part of this giving included their formation of the O’Keefe Foundation to support the mental health causes, the disabled, Catholic charities, the African-American community, and the arts. Following the 1998 death of Mrs. O’Keefe, in her memory Jerry made a major donation to, and assumed lead fundraising responsibilities for, the George Ohr Museum’s building campaign. In connection with the gift, O’Keefe insisted that the new museum include an exhibition space devoted to African American art and culture, to which the museum agreed. The Frank-Gehry designed museum campus includes a gallery for this purpose. The museum was ultimately renamed The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in honor of Mrs. O'Keefe. O’Keefe and the O’Keefe Foundation remained key benefactors of the Ohr-OKeefe Museum of Art. For the remainder of his life, Jerry O'Keefe continued to live in the same house he had before the trial (though he had to rebuild it after Hurricane Katrina), drive the same type of car, and play small-stakes blackjack every once in a while.
The O'Keefe family's personal finances were never under duress, and ending cable service as a cost-cutting measure was an embellisment for dramatic effect in the movie plot. Jerry did not take, or ever need to take, an additional mortgage on the family home to continue pursuing the case. There were nine plaintiffs: Jerry O’Keefe, Jeff O’Keefe (president of Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes); Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes; The Gulf Group; Gulf National Investment; Gulf National Life; Gulf Holdings; Selected Funeral Insurance; and James F. Webb Funeral Home. There were never discussions about pursuing the fight in order to leave a financial legacy for the O'Keefe children. The plaintiffs’ reasons for filing the lawsuit included Loewen’s breach of a contract between his insurance company and a Jackson, Mississippi funeral home that Loewen later purchased; breach of the contract settling that dispute; and Loewen’s violations of antitrust law. The movie ignores the strength of O’Keefe’s contract claims and the film’s producers and promoters have mischaracterized the underlying case as “a handshake deal gone wrong”. The movie accurately portrays the suffering which bereaved people experience in towns where there is no competition among funeral homes. Funeral home monopolies are able to raise prices for their goods and services far higher than they charge in locations where there is competition. The size of the verdict in O'Keefe v. Loewen came as a surprise to all sides. However, the decision for the plaintiff was less suprising: the Loewen Group was cited for antitrust violations in other states both before and after the O'Keefe trial. The cross-examination scene of Jerry O’Keefe is one of the most fictionalized segments of the movie. O’Keefe never removed or used reserves from his insurance company (the “people’s money” which underwrites the company’s liabilities to its policyholders) for personal gain or illegal purposes. O'Keefe made multiple settlement offers before and after the trial. Ray Loewen never met face-to-face with O’Keefe to discuss settlement. O’Keefe never rejected an offer of $75 million, nor did he seek at any point to put the Loewen Group out of business. Had the Loewen Group been forced immediately into bankruptcy, its ability to pay out a settlement would have been jeopardized. The jury’s award included $100 million for actual damages suffered by the plaintiffs and an additional $400 million in punitive damages. The scene involving Gary and O'Keefe on the courthouse steps never happened. O'Keefe was jubilant after the trial, not glum.