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Lawyer Patrick McGuinness

Star attorney keeps a hand in show business

Whatever quality it is that makes a star, lawyer Patrick McGuinness has it.

Lawyer Patrick McGuinnessWith his muscular build and toothy grin, he in fact looks a little like a short, stocky version of Burt Lancaster. If asked, he can do a pitch-perfect imitation of Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, the 1960 movie for which Lancaster won his Best Actor Oscar.

The French film company that came to Jacksonville in 2000 to do a documentary on the American court system was incredibly lucky. Not only did director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet stumble on a riveting tale of an innocent boy being railroaded by the criminal justice system, but they also stumbled on a star to build their story around.

The innocent boy was 15-year-old Brenton Butler, whose trial for the slaying of a Georgia tourist provided the story for Murder on a Sunday Morning. The star was lawyer Patrick McGuinness, an assistant public defender who, in partnership with Ann Finnell, convinced a jury that Butler's murder confession had been coerced by Jacksonville detectives.

“Butler testified that police detectives beat it out of him”

Though McGuinness insists that Finnell and the rest of the public defender's office played equal roles in defending Butler, the filmmakers made McGuinness their key character. They recognized star power.

What makes the tough, cocky, aggressive McGuinness such a riveting character is best captured in an offhand story he tells late in the movie. He is describing an antagonistic encounter with a detective he will soon cross-examine. "Enjoy your cancer stick," the detective said as McGuinness lighted another of the Lucky Strikes he chain-smokes.

McGuinness's snarling response: "I always smoke before sex."

In March, shortly before it premiered on television on HBO, Murder on a Sunday Morning won the Academy Award as the year's Best Documentary.

Meanwhile, the siren song of show business has been whispering in McGuinness' ear. He says he turned down one offer to work as a consulting producer on a TV series because it involved moving to Los Angeles.

Lawyer Patrick McGuinness says he doesn't want to leave Jacksonville and he is content with his current job. As a defense attorney in private practice, he might be able to double his salary of about $100,000 a year; if he were to apply his considerable courtroom skills to civil litigation, he could make more money than that.

But McGuinness, 51, a Jacksonville public defender for almost 25 years, said he loves his job. "It's important work and sometimes it's exciting work," he said.

But Hollywood is still whispering. He's signed a deal with HBO to pitch ideas that could lead to a possible series. "Hopefully, something will develop that will let me put some money away for my son's college," said McGuinness, whose son Sean is 12.

There's also been talk of a feature film, which would provide a nice windfall for McGuinness and Finnell. In Hollywood, all projects are built on quicksand. But, for the role of Patrick McGuinness, he's heard such names as Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson. That's star power.

"Fortunately, I have a wife to keep me humble," said McGuinness, grinning that Burt Lancaster grin.