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A Former Lawyer Tries Something New

Theater* At midlife, the first prosecutor in a famed Savannah murder case has struck out on a new path: actor and playwright.

June 08, 2002|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If a young prosecutor had not been outfoxed by the defense 20 years ago in Savannah, Ga., "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," one of the best-selling books of the 1990s, would not have been written.

Clint Eastwood would not have produced and directed the film version starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.

And the prosecutor, Dep Kirkland, would not now have an attention-grabbing calling card while making his rounds of Hollywood as an aspiring writer-actor.

In pursuing his radical midlife make-over--at the cost of his law career and the affluence it brought--Kirkland's link to a celebrated murder trial has helped him get his foot in the door. He's staking his hopes on "MsTrial," the play he wrote and stars in at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood.

Kirkland plays John Paris, a star plaintiff's attorney who usually has his way in court--and then, during a drunken celebration after winning a big case, forcibly has his way with a female associate. The critical scene depicts the two in heated embraces that are sexy and very mutual--until the young woman changes her mind at the last moment. She asks, then screams, for Paris to stop, and he ignores her.

The rest of the play is about what happens in Paris' conscience and in a legal system that must try to establish guilt or innocence and mete out just punishment.

"I like to explore the gray areas, the underbelly of life, the complicated areas," Kirkland says. "Life is just not simple."

One thing that seemed simple enough to Kirkland was the guilt of Jim Williams, the defendant in "Midnight in the Garden." In 1981, Danny Hansford, the sometime-employee, sometime-lover of Williams, a wealthy Savannah antiques dealer, was found shot dead. The police called Kirkland that night, and the corpse, with three bullet holes in it, was still warm when he got to the scene.

Williams pleaded self-defense; the jury found that Kirkland and his boss, Dist. Atty. Spencer Lawton Jr., who tried the case together, had proved it was murder. But the guilty verdict was overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court because of problems with a police officer's testimony. During the trial, the defense questioned whether what the officer said on the stand about a previous altercation between Williams and Hansford contradicted his written report. Kirk- land says he could have erased any problem for the prosecution by insisting that the judge show the report to the defense. Instead, Kirk- land acquiesced when Williams' attorney, Bobby Lee Cook, said he would take Kirkland's word for it that the officer's testimony was complete. Then Cook won the appeal by arguing that it was not--and that the prosecution had unjustly withheld details from the written report.

"We got snookered," recalls Lawton, still the district attorney in Savannah. "It was a right brilliant, although in my opinion unsavory, tactic on the defense's part. Dep is an excellent lawyer, and he did everything he could have."

Williams would have three more trials, ending with an acquittal in 1989. Seven months later, he was dead of pneumonia. Writer John Berendt met Williams shortly after the first trial and decided three years later to write a book about Savannah's quirky socialites and its weird demimonde of voodoos and transvestites.

By the time of Williams' second trial, Kirkland was on to other things, having been appointed by the governor to represent Georgia's citizenry in negotiations to set utility rates. Later he was private counsel to the satellite TV industry and to the Edison Project, which holds contracts around the country to run troubled public schools. Kirkland was named a Life Fellow by the State Bar of Georgia--a distinction reserved for 3% of the membership who show "outstanding legal abilities and a devotion to their communities."

Then, about nine years ago, he decided he'd had it with the law. Deep down, he says, he knew from his first day at the University of Georgia law school that it wasn't for him. "I ended up staying because I didn't have the guts to say 'no,' and I ended up doing fairly well only because I didn't have the guts to fail."

He became a bartender in Atlanta. His marriage ended and his ex-wife moved to Florida with their two daughters, now 18 and 14. He began taking acting courses and, in 1996, he moved to New York City.

"He lived in a little dump on 3rd Avenue," said Fred Kareman, Kirkland's acting teacher in New York, "and here's a guy who I'm sure made a good buck in his day, and he never complained about it."

Kareman saw a spark in Kirkland's playwriting, which began with monologues he wrote to deliver in class. Kareman suggested he send his scripts to one of his former students, Bill Block, a Hollywood executive.

Block read "MsTrial" about a year ago and set in motion the chain of events that brought Kirkland to L.A. He arrived three months ago and has been living in Burbank on the fold-out couch of a friend of a friend.

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