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R.I.P. Michael "Mac" McGinnis

While I was in my second year of law school, I decided I was going to be a criminal defense attorney. I think I always knew that was going to happen, but I went to school telling people I was going to practice technology law.

It felt to me in law school that there were dozens of others who were planning to become prosecutors and, listening to them, I knew that my own fate was sealed. I was “doomed,” as it were, to be a criminal defense attorney.

That’s how I ended up meeting Mac.

I didn’t meet Mac immediately, of course. I started out clerking for a criminal law specialist named David Mugridge. At the time, Dave kept a smallish office and my workspace was cramped. Since I already knew my fate, I decided to rent an office down the hall from Dave. That lead to my becoming an “independent law clerk,” offering my services to other attorneys researching and writing motions.

And that’s how I ended up meeting Mac. Mac was one of those attorneys who showed up at my door one day, saying, in Mac’s signature boisterous and gravelly voice — almost a shout — that he’d heard there was a new man in town and, after a “gettin’-to-know-ya” conversation, he told me that he wanted to hire me to write a couple of motions.

For the next couple of years, I did a bit of writing for Mac, in addition to several other attorneys. No one (with the obvious exception of David Mugridge) was more supportive of me in the beginning than Mac.

Mac was there when I was sworn in — “Why, I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” — and from that day forward was fond of telling people his IQ dropped 30 points the day I was sworn in.

The first case I accepted after being sworn in was a “death penalty case” out of Kings County. I’d been down there watching and — from the gallery — assisting David Mugridge by sending notes to his paralegal. Dave had requested I accompany them and asked me to send him notes: my assignments under Dave had involved reading everything there was to read about gangs and gang defense and he — like a lot of others, wrongly referred to me as an “expert.”

One of the co-defendants in the case apparently asked about “the shot caller” in the gallery and, according to his family, Dave suggested they contact me about taking the case as I was about to be sworn in.

I initially refused the case. After all, I was a brand new attorney. The case was a “death penalty case.” Sure, as a certified student, I’d “sat second chair” on a couple special circumstances (i.e., death-eligible) cases with David Mugridge. Dave really worked me in those cases, too: I wrote and argued motions, both in limine and during trial; I helped with voir dire; I questioned a witness or two and conducted at least one 402 hearing outside the presence of the jury; I even came up with the theme and created a closing using Powerpoint — which Dave delivered — in one case. But this was different and I said “no.”

Mac found out what I’d done and showed up at my office.

“You should take the case. It’s a gang case. You’re more qualified than most to handle that.”

I wasn’t and I knew it.

After a long discussion, Mac got me to agree to take the case with him. Mac, who had 33 years of experience in criminal law and had handled death penalty cases as a prosecutor even before becoming a defense attorney, would be the official first chair and responsible attorney.

“And you’ll do all the work!,” he laughed.

So we worked the case together — and Mac was true to his word. It was a good experience for me. After the first month, the DA’s Office decided not to ask for the death penalty, exactly as Mac had felt would happen. Mac didn’t just make me do all the work, as he had promised: he questioned me. “What do you think needs to be done next?,” he would ask. He didn’t just spoon-feed me; he wanted me to figure things out.

As I recall, it took about 8-10 months to complete the case. Considering there was a confession and our client had lead the police to evidence in a field, Mac was fairly effusive about the 28-months determinate sentence I negotiated with the prosecutor. I felt like shit, but my client’s attitude was closer to that of Mac. (His family tended to agree with my self-assessment, however.)

Shortly after we started that case, Mac asked me to join him on another case; this time in Madera County. It was another gang case, but this one involved attempted murder. That case, too, ended up with a resolution that made the client very happy. And, again, Mac encouraged me to take a major hand in the case.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve worried that I am playing too big a part in this story. But that’s not my intent: I’m trying to show what kind of person Mac was. Even though I spent perhaps less time working with Mac than I did with, for example, David Mugridge or any other attorney, Mac did more to build my self-confidence — refusing to accept that I was not qualified, pushing me to take responsibility, coaching me and making me act when I was afraid I was “too new” — than any other attorney with whom I’ve worked. I came to know that Mac wasn’t going to let me screw things up in any way that would be unfixable, but he wasn’t going to step in and take over at the first sign of trouble, either.

Mac used to tell me, not that I had it in me to be a great attorney, but that I was, already, a great attorney, a fighter, and he pushed me to develop that persona. It was Mac who taught me not to back down to jailers, when the Officer of the Day at the then-new Kings County Jail said we couldn’t have a contact visit with our client because they hadn’t built interview rooms for that purpose.

We just did those two cases together, but they helped give me my start as a private criminal defense attorney. Bunny Chafowitz and I became good friends of Mac and his wife, Maxine. We even accompanied them for a night of “roughing it” somewhere up in the mountains. (I have no idea where it was; I just went where I was told and pitched a tent when Bunny told me to. Next to Mac’s RV. ;)) We enjoyed many a brunch — I think even more than a mid-afternoon snack at Club One, brunch was Mac’s favorite meal — and Mac and I frequently also ate those mid-afternoon snacks at Club One.

Mac continued to be a great friend, although his later illness did strain things a bit as Mac began to withdraw from me — and his other friends. Many people didn’t know — I don’t think in the beginning Mac knew, because the toxins that accumulated when his kidneys began failing did impact his thinking a bit — that he was sick and his reactions puzzled and concerned some.

The last year of his life, I didn’t see much of him. Bunny and I called and sang “Happy Birthday” to his voicemail. And on the rare occasions I spotted him downtown, I always ran after him to talk and see how things were going.

Our talks then were always too short. One or the other of us was headed to or from court.

Ultimately, I heard that his illness had caused him a couple of problems with his practice and he was forced to shut down. I don’t know the details: Mac was pretty much secluding himself away from everyone by the time I heard and wouldn’t return anyone’s calls.

What I do know is that, in the year before and after I was sworn in, Mac was a great mentor to me. Part coach, part cheerleader, part teacher, all friend.

Maxine called today to tell me that Mac passed away from his illness last Friday. For those who knew him, information about services will be published in tomorrow’s Fresno Bee.

I’ll miss you, Mac. Thank you for helping me get started. Rest in Peace, my friend.

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