The Singer and His Fallen Friends
Greg Westfall sings the stories—and saves the lives—of society's rabble
Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
In 2003, Fort Worth’s Greg Westfall was living every musician’s dream. He was in a Los Angeles recording studio with a top-notch band putting the final touches on tracks (the majority of which he wrote himself) for his first CD. It’s the kind of situation that only a matter of life or death could interrupt.
And it did.
“I had to take a break during the recording to get ready for the Jamien Demon Nickerson death penalty case,” Westfall explains.
Westfall was representing Nickerson, a Fort Worth man indicted on two unrelated capital murder charges, one involving the point-blank shooting of a motorist during a carjacking, and another for the kidnapping and slaying of a young mother. It wasn’t Westfall’s first highly publicized capital murder case, but it may have been his toughest. “If we didn’t win in voir dire, the jury would have voted to kill him,” Westfall says. Ultimately, the case never reached that point. The state took the death penalty off the table three weeks into jury selection and Nickerson received two life sentences.
Over the last 14 years, Westfall has made a name for himself representing individuals in deep trouble. He kept gang member Anthony D. Williams, accused of a robbery-related killing, off of death row. He helped Sabrina Benaissa when she was charged for twice abandoning her newborn child.
And when he’s not defending those troubled souls, he’s singing about them. On his CD titled Texas Theater, Westfall uses rock and traditional Texas folk music to tell stories of outlaws and convicts, many of them inspired by actual criminal cases. In the song “Angel,” he sings, “He rides the rails up from the border/He slips in and out of sight/His head is filled with a million voices saying ‘someone dies tonight.'” Westfall says the song is loosely based around the story of Angel Maturino Resendiz, a rail-riding serial killer who was sentenced to death in 2000.
For a guy who deals with people accused of some downright heinous crimes—both musically and legally—Westfall seems remarkably upbeat. He’s tall and lanky, with a boyish grin that easily progresses into a series of guffaws. It’s still easy to imagine the younger version of Westfall—a slightly gangly, music-obsessed kid who spent hours memorizing Peter Frampton riffs.
“I would listen to a little piece of a song over and over to figure out how to play it,” Westfall recalls. He was raised around music—his father played saxophone and piano, and his great aunt was a concert pianist—but the attorney says his own musical passion took off when he began to listen to rock and learn guitar.
“It was the ’70s, so Peter Frampton was it,” he says. Once bitten by the rock bug, Westfall wasn’t interested in much else. During high school, he paid little attention to the social scene, or to his classes. “I was in a rock band called Magnum. We were playing Thin Lizzy songs at all the keg parties.” Simultaneously cringing and laughing, Westfall admits, “And I had hair down to my waist.”
A few years after high school graduation, Westfall joined the Army. There, his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (along with his hair) were subject to some major changes. Westfall’s decision to enlist came after his freshman year at Florida State University. “Before my classes had even started, I pledged a fraternity and was partying hard.” He says it came as no surprise that he finished the year with a GPA of 1.5. While he would eventually go on to graduate third in his class from law school at Texas Tech University, he says, “Back then, school just wasn’t my thing.”
Neither was the Army, as he learned during the first week of basic training. “If I could have quit during the first day, I would have. You know how people go into the Army to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives? I went in and learned exactly what I didn’t want to do: be in the Army.”
Westfall contends that after the initial adjustment, his three-year stint went by quickly. In fact, he received numerous achievement awards during his service, getting selected as Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year for his command, and becoming the first E-5 in his company to earn a Meritorious Service Medal, an honor usually reserved for company commander at the end of a term.
Even though he lost the long hair, Westfall continued to play music intensively during his time in the Army. Stationed in Panama, he would spend four to six hours every day practicing guitar. He even got a gig performing the lead guitar parts (behind the curtain, for an actor playing George Harrison) in a Panamanian production of Beatlemania.
When word of his musical abilities got back to the U.S. Army’s All Soldier Show in Washington, D.C., Westfall was asked to audition for the multimillion-dollar production, which toured Army bases all over the country. On his audition videotape, Westfall played Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and George Thorogood’s “Move It on Over.” He was chosen from 150 finalists, and moved to D.C. to begin work on the show.
During his last year in the Army, Westfall was accepted to the Guitar Institute of Technology, a well-known music school in Hollywood. But he felt compelled to finish his coursework at a “regular college.” After declining the offer, he enrolled as a business major at University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).
Westfall graduated from UTA in 1990 with no remorse about his decision to forgo music school. That choice gets reaffirmed even today when he sits in with a band of full-time musicians. Recently, he played with some musician friends at a club where the bartender kept yelling that the music was too loud, and management stiffed them on their pay at the end of the night. “When you’re out there trying to make it in the music world, you have to take a lot of abuse,” he says. “There’s always someone there to hose you, whether it be a record company or a promoter.”
But certain types of cruel behavior are likely to pop up in the legal profession as well. During his first summer in law school, Westfall had a clerkship at a civil law firm, where he worked after graduation. “Man, I hated it,” he says emphatically. “I dealt with adjusters who would tell me to go fly a kite just for trying to claim the bare amount of medical costs.”
Finding civil law to be intolerably uncivil, Westfall switched to criminal law in an effort to avoid such nastiness. “If we’re just talking about someone’s life or their freedom,” he says, “people have a tendency to be collegial. But when you start talking about the really important things like money, everyone’s really mean to each other.”
After leaving the civil law firm in 1994, Westfall joined up with well-known criminal defense attorney Jeff Kearney. It was the same year Westfall married his wife, Mollee, a former Tarrant County prosecutor who recently took the bench as the youngest of Tarrant County’s nine felony court judges.
Once Westfall made the switch into criminal law, he had the opportunity to work on cases like that of Lance Butterfield, the high school honor student and football star who snapped one day and shot his abusive father. Westfall was second chair on the case, and felt a close bond with Butterfield. He recalls meeting with the young man the day before he was set to testify. “Lance was still completely removed from the fact that he had killed his own father,” he says. Westfall asked Butterfield to write a letter to his late father. Butterfield came back the next day with letter in hand, and, as Westfall describes it, “he completely opened up on the stand.” After an initial mistrial, a plea bargain was struck on the eve of the second trial. Butterfield pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a three-year sentence with eligibility for parole in 24 months.
After six and a half years with Kearney, Westfall opened his own criminal practice in February 2001, the same month that he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child. He became inspired to play music again. “I wanted my son to grow up in a house with music,” he says. (They’ve since added a daughter, who is now five.)
The following year, Westfall became even more “fired up” about music when he attended a course at Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming. It may seem unusual to find songwriting inspiration at a seminar designed to improve trial methods, but Westfall claims it was one of the most musically fertile periods of his life. “I was really into the notion of how to tell a story effectively,” he says. “I could translate that into my work in the courtroom, and into my work as a songwriter.”
After Westfall returned home from the seminar, two significant things happened. “I tried the best case of my career, and I wrote enough songs to fill a CD.” The case was that of Larry Wayne Lance, a police officer charged with aggravated assault. While responding to a call about suspicious activity, Lance struck two men on the head so hard that they required stitches. Westfall used his newly honed trial skills to successfully argue that Lance believed he was in a potentially volatile situation during the incident. The officer was acquitted.
Westfall was also successful when he tested out his fresh approach to songwriting at a local open-mic night. “I got a favorable response, so I went back another week, then another, for the next three months.” He hooked up with a local music producer, and the momentum grew. The following year Texas Theater was released. Before he knew it, Westfall was on stage warming up for country legend Tanya Tucker. “It was like Fantasy Island for a year,” Westfall says of the period after his CD was released.
While Westfall has plans to release another CD in the next few years, he’ll never give up law. “I love what I do in law,” he says, “and it helps me be more creative with music.”