Patrick McGuinness – A Jacksonville Legal Legend

Jacksonville parts with a legal giant.

“He was one-of-a-kind.” “There is nobody else like him.” “One of the best lawyers that ever walked the planet.” “There will never be another Pat McGuinness, that’s for sure.” 

These are just a few of the comments made after members of the Northeast Florida legal community learned that longtime criminal defense attorney Patrick McGuinness passed away March 22, 2021. McGuinness, who turned 70 (on Christmas Day, of course!), suffered from a bone marrow disorder and had undergone a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic. 

“We were so hoping it was going to go well for him,” said Lewis Buzzell, chief assistant at the Office of the Public Defender 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida. Buzzell and McGuinness started as assistant public defenders in Jacksonville in 1977 and became part of the office’s widely-respected homicide defense team. 

“McGuinness was one of the most thorough, hardworking, brilliant trial lawyers ever to try a case in Northeast Florida. He worked relentlessly to uncover untruths in witnesses’ statements or to show that witnesses had a motive and a reason to lie,” said Alan Chipperfield, another former assistant public defender who was also part of that homicide defense team.   

Public Defender Charlie Cofer pointed out that McGuinness, a notorious raconteur, was best known for his role as co-counsel with Jacksonville attorney Ann Finnell in the case of Brenton Butler in 2000.  The case involved a 15-year-old boy who was wrongfully charged with murder and gave a false confession after being hit by a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective. After spending six months in jail, Butler was found not guilty, and McGuinness later submitted evidence to the police which led to the identification and subsequent conviction of the true perpetrators. Coincidentally, a French film crew had been in Jacksonville at the same time to film the American criminal justice experience and wound up focusing on the Butler trial. The film was acquired by HBO, and Murder on a Sunday Morning went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2002.

McGuinness, who was known for his sartorial exuberance (always, always French cuffs and cufflinks), was quite well known at the Duval County Courthouse even before the Oscar-winning film brought international recognition and fame. 

“Pat McGuinness was one of the few people who could go toe-to-toe with [the late] Judge Hudson Olliff,” said retired attorney Claudia Wright referring to the judge’s wry observations of the criminal justice system. Wright started out at the Public Defender’s Office in 1978 in Juvenile Court with McGuinness and former Judge John Skinner. “[Pat] had a quick response for everything Olliff could toss out.”    

Assistant Public Defender Cynthia Cook recounted a day when McGuinness showed up in Olliff’s chambers wearing mirrored sunglasses after eye surgery. Olliff asked Pat what was up with the mirrored sunglasses, and Pat answered without a beat: “I just wanted to see if your reflection would show up in them, your honor!” On another occasion, Cook said, Pat replied to a comment from Olliff, “This coming from a man who wears a black dress …”

McGuinness was well known for his taste in Bombay Sapphire gin and for smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes. Heart attacks in 2011 and 2012 brought an end to smoking, but McGuinness retained his joie de vivre and his fondness for gin and tonic. 

Surprising to some, Pat was actually a homebody who had remodeled several homes, doing much of the work himself. He and his wife Alice had just completed a “down-to-the-studs” remodel of a home where the couple lived with their son Sean. Pat was always fond of showing photos of his progress during the rebuild.  

McGuinness grew up in the Long Island suburbs of New York City, but his family moved to Jacksonville in the mid-1960s when his father took a job as branch manager for IBM. He was from a classic Irish-American family; in fact, he, along with his twin brother Brian, were the second set of twins in a family of nine children. 

Brian, now a private investigator in Miami, described McGuinness as a child. “He was an urchin with lots of positive energy, mischievous at times,” he said. “The dinner table at our house was always crowded, but in a good way … my father had a specially built round dining room table that could seat at least 10 people. We were encouraged to speak about what we learned in school, current events, politics.” Brian described his twin as always on top of the subjects, always witty and always with an opinion. 

McGuinness always prided himself on his physical strength: In high school, he worked as a furniture mover and, back in the day, could be counted on to help every young public defender move from one apartment to the next. After graduating from Bishop Kenny High School, he and Brian attended the University of Connecticut. McGuinness went on to law school at the University of Miami. After graduating in 1977, he worked at the Jacksonville Public Defender’s Office in Jacksonville  under a federal grant before being hired full time in 1978. 

“He always complained that we cheated him out of a year of his retirement,” laughed Buzzell. 

McGuinness met his wife Alice in 1982; they married in 1988. Their son Sean was born in 1990.

After Murder on a Sunday Morning garnered international fame, McGuinness and Finnell were in demand on both national and international speaking circuits, even being honored by the Paris Bar Association. McGuinness made several trips to Paris to speak about the Butler trial and about the American criminal justice system. Years after the film’s release, two young public defenders from Jacksonville were traveling in France and happened to meet an attorney with a large Paris law firm. When he found out the two were criminal defense lawyers in America, he mentioned the name of the only attorney he had heard of there: “Patreeek” McGuinness. The public defenders showed the Paris lawyer photos of themselves with McGuinness and were feted with a nice bottle of red wine as a result.

As the grandson of two New York City beat cops, he was driven to investigate cases and often was able to show the prosecution that law enforcement had the wrong person. Many young attorneys looked to McGuinness to learn those skills, and he patiently volunteered his time with many a new attorney in the Public Defender’s Office. 

Attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office were in tears as word of McGuinness’ death made its way around the office. Almost every attorney who had worked with him mentioned not only his brilliant wit but spoke about all the times he had helped on a case. 

McGuinness’ experience with serious felony cases was often helpful in laying out prospects for a client. One time, a client complained to former Judge John Southwood about the advice McGuinness was giving him, telling the judge McGuinness told him “his dog was smarter than me.” Southwood, a man quick to get to the point, asked the client, “Well, did you consider that perhaps he makes a good point?”

Chris Moser, a former assistant public defender who is now the director of the pre-law program at Flagler College, shows the Murder on a Sunday Morning to her criminal law class. “Pat always came to my criminal law class to talk about false confessions,” she said.”My students always loved him.” 

Moser said that after she saw the movie in the early 2000s, she was inspired to leave her job and come to Jacksonville to work at the Public Defender’s Office with McGuinness and Finnell and other lawyers like them. Other criminal defense attorneys in Jacksonville also credit McGuinness and Finnell’s work in the documentary as inspiration for their own careers. 

McGuinness’ expertise extended beyond the criminal defense bar; Joseph Sesta, a neuropsychologist who often works with homicide cases, said, “Whether it was prepping for a trial or sitting around listening to his stories, you couldn’t be around Pat and not learn something. He will be missed as both a great lawyer and a great man.”

And to that great man, we hoist a glass and say (as they sing in Irish pubs), “So fill to me the parting glass and drink a health whate’er befalls. Then gently rise and softly call. Good night and joy be to you all. Good night and joy be to you all.”

Farewell, Patrick.

About Teri Sopp