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South Florida detective recounts crucial role in Dream Team defense of O.J.

Pat McKenna, right, with O.J. Simpson, left, at Simpson’s home in Los Angeles’ tony Brentwood section hours after a jury acquitted him in 1995 of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Courtesy of Pat McKenna
Pat McKenna, right, with O.J. Simpson, left, at Simpson’s home in Los Angeles’ tony Brentwood section hours after a jury acquitted him in 1995 of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The man in the middle is Howard Harris, who worked with famed attorney F. Lee Bailey.

When infamous NFL star, turned rental car pitchman, turned accused murderer O.J. Simpson died last week, West Palm Beach private detective Pat McKenna said his phone blew up with requests for interviews from news outlets across the country.

While he shunned most of them, it’s easy to understand why the 75-year-old gumshoe was in demand.

Not only is he one of the last survivors of what was dubbed the “Trial of the Century,” but he is credited with gathering key evidence that turned what much of the country deemed a slam dunk case against Simpson into an acquittal.

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Plucked from his West Palm Beach office to work for Simpson’s so-called “Dream Team,” McKenna spent countless hours knocking on doors and fielding thousands of calls from both the cranks and the credible who claimed they had blockbuster information about Simpson’s role in the 1994 stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

McKenna painstakingly developed a timeline that raised doubts about whether Simpson could have killed two people, cleaned up the horrific mess, returned home and then boarded a red-eye to Chicago for a golf outing.

But, his biggest find was pure happenstance.

He readily admits, he got lucky.

Some six months into what would be a nine-month trial, McKenna got a call from an unidentified lawyer. The attorney claimed he had a client who had tapes that would show Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Furman was a virulent racist.

Bringing down Furman, who claimed he found a bloody glove at Simpson’s estate that conclusively linked the celebrity to the murders, would be enormous. But, McKenna had received countless titillating tips that proved to be worthless.

"I figured it would be one of those wild, middle-of-the-night goose chases,” McKenna recalled."

Instead, the call led McKenna to college professor and screenwriter Laura Hart McKinney. While working on a book with Furman about how women police officers are mistreated, McKinney had amassed 13 hours of taped interviews with the veteran cop.

In the tapes, Furman admitted to regularly using the N-word. He bragged about brutalizing Black suspects. Planting evidence was commonplace, he said.

Furman, who had testified earlier in the trial, was summoned back to the witness stand. He refused to answer repeated questions about whether he had ever planted evidence. His earlier claims that he hadn’t used the N-word in 10 years were refuted. His credibility was destroyed.

"It was one of the best calls I ever made, certainly my most fruitful,” McKenna said."

The prosecution’s case was also famously battered when the glove Furman found at Simpson’s home and one recovered from the murder scene didn’t fit Simpson’s hands.

But at a Christmas party in California following the October 1995 verdict, McKenna said members of the predominantly Black jury told him the tapes figured prominently into their decision.

The tapes proved what they long suspected: Simpson, while enormously rich, was just another victim of a racist criminal justice system.

FILE - Defendant O.J. Simpson and members of his defense team react as the jury walk into the courtroom in Los Angeles Friday, May 5, 1995.
Reed Saxon
Pool AP
FILE - Defendant O.J. Simpson and members of his defense team react as the jury, many wearing white T-shirts sporting a slogan from a local pizza chain, walk into the courtroom in Los Angeles Friday, May 5, 1995. From left to right are" Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, O.J. Simpson, Johnnie Cochran Jr., and Robert Shapiro. Background is Deputy Guy Magnera. Simpson, the decorated football superstar and Hollywood actor who was acquitted of charges he killed his former wife and her friend but later found liable in a separate civil trial, has died. He was 76. 

McKenna, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Palm Beach County in 1978 after getting a master’s degree in corrections from Chicago State University, has been involved in many high-profile cases during his 40-plus-year career. He has an encyclopedic memory about each and every one of them.

  • The William Kennedy Smith rape trial.
  • The Casey Anthony child killing case.

They, too, ended in acquittals.
But, McKenna said, nothing compares to the hoopla that surrounded the Simpson trial.

“Compared to the William Kennedy Smith case with the CNN live coverage and all the insanity in West Palm Beach — that was like a traffic ticket compared to O.J.,” he said. “It was like an unhinged f***ing carnival.”

Over the years, he said he stayed in touch with Simpson and some of the members of the defense team. Many are gone.

Attorney Robert Kardashian, Simpson’s longtime friend who assembled the team, died in 2003 of esophageal cancer. Lead attorney Johnnie Cochran, who is forever remembered for telling the jury “if glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” died of brain cancer in 2005. McKenna’s longtime friend, F. Lee Bailey, died in 2021.

McKenna said he talked to Simpson recently and knew he was sick with cancer. But, he said, he was stunned when news broke that he was dead.

“How did that happen so fast? I just talked to him,” McKenna said he asked himself as his phone began buzzing with interview requests.

McKenna dismisses the significance of a 1997 civil trial when a jury ordered Simpson to pay the families of his ex-wife and Goldman $33 million for causing the deaths of their loved ones — an amount that remains largely unpaid.

The standard of proof in a civil trial is a “preponderance of evidence” instead of the much higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” that is required in a criminal matter.

But that isn’t what makes McKenna question the veracity of the civil jury’s verdict.

“They’d seen the whole country torn apart by this,” he said. “Do you think they’re going to go back to their houses and say, ‘We cleared O.J.?’”

McKenna, however, still believes Simpson was innocent. Close friends have challenged him — some physically — for his unconventional stance.

But, he said, he interviewed people who wouldn’t know “O.J. Simpson from Bart Simpson.” They corroborated O.J.’s version of events. The timeline didn’t make sense. The police work was atrocious.

Had police done their jobs properly, “they could have eliminated O.J. in three seconds,” and found the real killer, he said.

Instead, he said, they followed their traditional twisted game plan.

The lesson of the Simpson case is simple. “It’s easy to frame a Black guy,” McKenna said. It’s a sad truth that propels him to continue to accept new cases even when his heart tells him he’d rather devote his time to his grandkids.

Simpson, unlike most of those facing criminal charges, had enough money to upend police plans.

“To me, it was always trying to pound a round peg into a square hole,” he said.

This story was originally published by Stet Palm Beach, a WLRN News partner.

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