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Trial by Fire : Admirers of Carolyn Kirkwood, Orange County's senior female homicide prosecutor, say it's the breadth of her experience--from telephone operator to bill collector to cocktail waitress--and her sense of drama that have helped her win most of her cases.

March 05, 1995|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Check out what's been said about Marcia Clark, and you get a glimpse of the challenges unique to female lawyers.

Besides analysis of her legal moves, America's most watched lawyer since Perry Mason gets comment from prospective jurors on her skirt length and TV anchorchat on the meaning of her "softer" hairstyle. Now, the whole world seems to know about her child-care needs.

Yes, the extraordinary attention cast upon the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century has also sharpened the focus on women in the courtroom.

Carolyn Kirkwood smiles knowingly. Orange County's senior female homicide prosecutor understands that a jury reacts differently to female and male lawyers.

But recognizing it only helps her win more. With a near-perfect string of convictions, Kirkwood, 43, has what one colleague calls "that intangible quality" that connects her with juries.

Having been a telephone operator, a cocktail waitress, a collection agent, a private eye's assistant and a rookie lawyer for the master of slip-and-fall lawsuits, Kirkwood has seen a bit of the world and brings street smarts to her job as deputy district attorney.

"She's Suzie Six-Pack," jokes her boss, Deputy Dist. Atty. Rick King, who oversees the homicide team with prosecutor Christopher Evans. "I like to tease her that, when the rest of us were out trying to find ourselves and figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up, Carolyn was drinking Schlitz at an Ohio bowling alley. She is one of our premier trial lawyers, and her results speak for themselves."

Kirkwood, who is in fact rather polished, protests, saying King made up the bowling alley part. Besides, she adds, on the rare occasions she drinks beer, it's Coors Light. Did she mention that she is a season ticket holder to the opera?

But she concedes that her unconventional route to the elite homicide detail gives hope to all those late bloomers who took a bit longer than the high school/college track to find their niche. So far, she's won all nine murder cases she has tried on the homicide team and lost just one as a gang prosecutor.

"She's got this incredible arsenal of life experiences, and that's our jury across the board," King adds. "Carolyn knows what a jury needs to convict, and you don't learn it in law school."

Kirkwood says her strengths are a flair for drama and an ease with people that makes her seem familiar.

"I'm not real , real smart; I'm not real flashy," she says, laughing. "I'm like Kathie Lee Gifford. . . . People think to themselves, 'Oh, she looks like someone I know.' "

Her husband, Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn, is momentarily incredulous when told this, then he starts laughing too.

"She is very good at what she does. When good trial lawyers have it, they have it. And she does. She can pick a jury, and that is really important. But that Kathie Lee part, she just threw that in because she knows I like her."

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Besides knowledge of the law and preparation, a sense of drama is helpful when putting on a murder case, she says. And growing up with parents who starred in community theater certainly exposed her to live performances, some right in the living room of the Kirkwoods' Akron home.

Her father was an executive with Goodyear Rubber & Tire Co., her mother an actress. Besides touring in "Seven-Year Itch," late at night at home her parents put on skits called "Oh, Doctor" and "Mr. Big Wheel Hires a Secretary," in which her mother would play all the patients and all the job applicants to the Doctor and Fat Cat Boss played by her father.

"I went to sleep at night to the smell of cigar smoke," Kirkwood says.

Her sister, Linda Smith, now an art teacher in Ohio, and her brother, political-intrigue novelist Tom Kirkwood, did their share of performing while their parents did shows and traveled around in a station wagon for their fundamentalist church.

"I actually organized a prizefight in the living room, charged admission, sold popcorn," Tom Kirkwood recalled with a chuckle from his home in Tennessee. "Then Carolyn knocked out our sister, so that kind of ended that."

Rebelling against her parents' strict religious beliefs, Kirkwood struck out on her own at age 17. She had a dime in her pocket and no job, and she found herself an apartment in a worn-out, dangerous part of Akron. She eventually hired on as an information operator at Ohio Bell.

"She's smart and a free-thinker and determined," big brother Tom says with admiration. "She had to learn quickly in her part of town who a person was and what they wanted. She worked many jobs that brought her in contact with many people and races and lifestyles, and she has learned to get inside a person's head. She lived by her wits."

After a few years, Kirkwood used the phone company's tuition reimbursement program to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, her brother's alma mater, where he was then teaching. She majored in philosophy; she worked as a waitress. The tips were horrible, she says, but the times were good.

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