Murder on a Sunday Morning

A teenager is indicted for murder under suspicious circumstances.

“Murder on a Sunday Morning”, a documentary (2001) by Jean-Xavier de Lestarde based on The Brenton Butler Case

“I like to have a cigarette before I have sex.”

This is what public defender Patrick McGuinness told the dubious detective he was about to cross-examine.

“I wanted him to know that I was going to screw him. I don’t think the message was lost on him.” 

Patrick McGuinness is a canny and tactical man. His demeanor is one of an unflappable, chain-smoking, haggard, crusading sleuth – like a character from a noir film. He has the deadpan voice of Gary Sinese, but his countenance more closely resembles Stellan Skarsgard. But if one were to truly cast an apposite actor to portray him on the screen, Nick Nolte back in his more youthful days with Kathleen Turner wouldn’t be too shabby a candidate.

As it happens McGuinness was on a crusade for justice, and his aim was to absolve Brenton Butler of the charge of murder and armed robbery.

In May 2000, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, an elderly couple from Georgia, were accosted outside their motel in Jacksonville, Florida. The perpetrator’s intent was to take the woman’s purse and, in the process, shot her in the head in front of her husband and fled.

Two and a half hours later police picked Butler up for questioning. The officer that testified to stopping Brenten Butler said that the only reason why he even arbitrarily stopped Butler on the street was because he and his partner had so little to go on in terms of identification, and Butler was a young black male. Butler was then a 15-year-old student at Englewood High School, on his way to submit a job application to a local Blockbuster Video. The husband Mr. Stevens, the only eyewitness to the shooting, immediately positively identified Butler as the killer.

The case against him was rather incriminating because Butler gave a statement to police admitting to the crimes.

Patrick McGuinness was able to demonstrate to the jury how the corrupt investigators procured this false confession through intimidation.

The day Butler was taken in for questioning, Detective Glover entered the interview room alone to talk him said, “You’re not innocent. We’ve got an eyewitness. It’s niggers like you that makes me mad these days.” Detective Glover is himself black, and he’s a tall and imposing figure. One could speculate he was chosen as the inquisitor for the express purpose of intimidating Butler with his physical size and racial epithets.

At dusk, Glover and two detectives took Buter into the woods.  The conniving detectives left Butler alone with Glover, where Glover struck the teenager twice in the stomach and once in the face. Soon after, they acquired his signature.

In the award-winning documentary film covering the subject of the trial, “Murder on a Sunday Morning”, Patrick McGuinness tells an interviewer, “I didn’t believe these men… and I didn’t respect them because of what they had done (beating and forced confession). And that put me in a fighting mood because I didn’t respect them.”

The attorney had a finely tuned bull-shit detector, and in his brash and direct way, he’s quite adept at shaking up his interlocutors, making them vulnerable and exposing their various contradictions and prevarications.

Throughout the entire episode, Butler had the solidarity of his family. His parent’s religious conviction was a source of confidence in their son being set free.

With a glass barrier between them, Mr. Butler reassures his son. “We know you’re going to win. Jesus is righteous. He will see to it.”

When it comes to the defense’s testimony, McGuinness explains to Butler’s father his reasoning for preferring Mrs. Butler over him, “Aside from the fact that I think she’s prettier than you, I’m sure you understand how a jury could be more receptive to the sight of a sympathetic mother defending her son.” Mr. Butler is tickled by the comment and understands the underlying tactic at play: McGuinness’ psychological appeal is sound.

Patrick McGuinness supplied a photograph of Butler with bruises on his face, which he and his partner Ann Finnell claimed was the result of the interrogation. During the final statements, McGuinness gave an impassioned peroration worthy of Atticus Finch, lamenting the faulty judicial system. It took the jury less than an hour to deliberate.

When they announced Butler’s innocence his family embraced him in tears of joy, sending thanks to divinity in grateful relief. They felt their prayers were answered and the answer came in the form of Patrick McGuinness and his sterling defense.  The reactions of the victim’s husband and his prosecuting team were stoic, impassive, but not outraged.

In the vein of a John Grisham novel, Patrick McGuinness – through his personal investigations - built a case of negligence, fraudulence and racial injustice against the police – and as a result – exonerated Butler, who was, in fact, innocent of wrongdoing.  After the case, the State Attorney's Office launched a grand jury investigation into the conduct of the officers and prosecutors, while the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office began an internal affairs investigation. The grand jury investigation criticized the prosecutor and police for their handling of the case but found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. 

Additional Information

Documentary Film