For years, Patrick McKinley liked to describe himself as “arguably the best assistant district attorney along the Pacific Rim.” Few in Santa Barbara legal circles would argue with that assessment, no matter how tongue-in-cheek its delivery may have been. Friday, June 27, McKinley took himself out of the running as the best second-in-command and ended an illustrious legal career that spanned almost four decades. At a farewell barbecue held at the District Attorney’s offices, McKinley found himself showered with sustained applause and a standing ovation by fellow prosecutors and department employees. McKinley has been a major player in Santa Barbara law enforcement circles, infusing his office with a sense of purpose, collegiality, and stability uncommon in the intensely competitive world of prosecutors and district attorneys. Fellow prosecutor Darryl Perlin described McKinley as “the glue that held this office together over the past 25 years.” Joyce Dudley, another prosecutor, likened McKinley to the department’s “heartbeat.”
During his 38 years in the office, McKinley worked under four separate District Attorneys, but none for so long-or so collaboratively-as with Tom Sneddon who retired two years ago. It was when Sneddon was first elected in 1982 that McKinley ascended to second-in-command, a post he defined almost single-handedly. “The department now is a lot stronger than it was 25 years ago,” said Ron Zonen, a 27-year veteran of the office, “and Pat deserves a lot of the credit.”
McKinley is also well regarded by the defense attorneys who’ve crossed swords with him over the years. “The highest compliment you can pay a trial attorney is to say he’s honest,” said defense attorney Bill Duval, “and Pat was always honest.” Defense attorney Joe Allen commented, “He never allowed anyone to overcome his better judgment over what he considered the right thing.” Sometimes this could cause problems with other prosecutors. If McKinley thought they were being too harsh, he wasn’t reluctant to intervene and cut a better deal with the defendant. “Over the years, Pat came to better understand the tremendous power of his office. With Pat it wasn’t about what kind of sentence could you get; it was what kind of sentence should you get.”
A native of Pittsburg, McKinley took his first job fresh out of law school as a prosecutor in Bakersfield in 1969. At the time, he said, he was a Kennedy Democrat who thought “the world was full of innocent people, that all cops were corrupt, and racism was rampant.” He wanted to be a public defender, but became a prosecutor instead, he explained, because he couldn’t find the public defender’s office. In June 1970, he was hired by Santa Barbara District Attorney David Minier; three days after arriving he was arrested in Isla Vista while observing the anti-war rioting then in full swing. He spent eight hours behind bars and jokes, “I beat the rap.”
“It’s a good quality to look at your case and really listen to what the other side is saying, and not to say, ‘This is just another dumb pitch,’” he said.
As a young attorney, McKinley was an aggressive fire-breather who exalted in his nickname “Psycho” and whose “5150” license plate number referred to the civil code section governing those who pose a danger to themselves or society. But over time, McKinley mellowed. “It’s a good quality to look at your case and really listen to what the other side is saying, and not to say, ‘This is just another dumb pitch,’” he said. In court, he experimented with an ultra-minimalist approach, rarely objecting and accepting the first 12 jurors.
Over the years, McKinley handled many of his office’s highest profile murder cases. He successfully prosecuted former UCSB chancellor Robert Huttenback for embezzlement and insurance fraud. And when two Israeli hit men executed Montecito residents Jack and Carmen Hively in the 1980s on behalf of the Hivelys’ daughter and son-in-law, McKinley traveled repeatedly to Israel to prosecute the killers there. But McKinley is most proud of the many cases and incidental details he handled that are too small to warrant any public fanfare. “I was the go-to guy in the office. I handled things. If someone had a laptop stolen that was still in police custody and they had a final exam coming up, I was the guy to handle it. If you called, you got an answer. I took care of it,” he said. “When a guy had the windshield of the car he slept in smashed, I got him the $300 for the repairs, plus another $300 in restitution.”
In retirement, McKinley is hoping to teach in Germany, Haiti, or Guatemala. In the meantime, he said, “My main concern is not dying of boredom after dealing with all the things and all the people I got to deal with every day. But so far, so good.”