Hearing Judge Described as Strong-Willed, Evenhanded : Profile: Kathleen Kennedy-Powell will dismiss charges when she thinks evidence has been seized improperly, observers say. 'She's not slanted toward the prosecution or defense,' one veteran attorney says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kathleen Kennedy-Powell, the Los Angeles Municipal Court judge who will rule whether O.J. Simpson must stand trial in the gruesome stabbing deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, is a former prosecutor with a reputation as a strong-willed, independent jurist.

Kennedy-Powell, 41, who served in the district attorney's sexual assault unit before being appointed to the bench in 1988, does not hesitate to dismiss charges when she believes there is insufficient or improperly seized evidence, say lawyers who frequently practice in her Downtown courtroom.

She is decisive, they say.

"One thing I like about her is she makes the call for better or worse," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Victor Rodriguez. "I don't always agree with her calls, but at least she makes the calls."

Lengthy, high-profile cases such as the Simpson one are not the usual courtroom fare for Kennedy-Powell, a Los Angeles native. She is used to hearing run-of-the-mill drug possession and burglary cases, frequently handling 10 or more preliminary hearings a day. Kennedy-Powell was thrust into the national spotlight when Patti Jo McKay, the Municipal Court judge who handled the arraignment, left for a previously scheduled vacation.

"She's a fine and hard-working judge," said Supervising Judge Veronica McBeth, who assigned Kennedy-Powell to the Simpson case.

Kennedy-Powell, a mother of two, is a member of a family that is to the law profession what the Wallendas are to trapezes. Her father, Brian J. Kennedy, is a longtime Los Angeles civil attorney, and she is married to Daniel Powell, a civil lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice cases.

On the bench, Kennedy-Powell exhibits a no-nonsense demeanor. That attitude is clear before one even enters her courtroom. On the door is a large plastic sign that reads: "Attention: Turn off all beepers and alarm watches!" The word all is underlined.

Some lawyers praise her approach.

"She's not slanted toward the prosecution or defense--she's neutral and impartial," said veteran Deputy Public Defender Tom Ahearn. "I've seen her get upset on occasion but usually for good reason. She snapped at me once because I showed up in her courtroom very late and held up a significant part of her calendar.

"But I had it coming. What can I say?"

However, some lawyers fault her demeanor on the bench.

Among her most vocal critics is former Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia McCombs, who led an effort to block her promotion to a Superior Court judgeship.

"She lets her temper and temperament get in the way of being a fair and unbiased person making decisions," said McCombs, who left the prosecutor's office last year to enter private practice. "It seemed like she was very unhappy . . . and irritated by everything."

In an auto theft case, McCombs said, Kennedy-Powell dismissed the charges because the prosecutor forgot to ask whether the crime took place in Los Angeles County. Rather than allow the case to be reopened for a moment so that the question could be asked, McCombs said, prosecutors were forced to free the defendant, refile the charges, rearrest him and call the witnesses back into court.

Kennedy-Powell, who was on the bench much of Thursday conducting the first session of Simpson's preliminary hearing, could not be reached for comment.

Off the bench, Kennedy-Powell is an avid sports fan who is described by associates as earnest and personable.

A longtime booster of the Los Angeles Dodgers, she is a former pitcher for a lawyers' softball team known as the Bad News Barristers. Kennedy-Powell, while a prosecutor in the mid-1980s, once worked for more than a month with casts on both arms after breaking them in a collision during a softball game.

"If she's perceived as stern or maybe even rigid, I would think that that would be from being so earnest about her work," said Superior Court Judge Ray Mireles, with whom she worked in the district attorney's office.

Kennedy-Powell, who graduated magna cum laude with an economics degree from Loyola Marymount University in 1974, entered private practice in 1977, working in her father's civil and family law practice.

Seeking more courtroom experience, she joined the district attorney's office in 1980, handling misdemeanor cases and eventually felony trials.

In the mid-1980s, when the Downtown Criminal Courts Building was the site of a series of high-profile prosecutions--including the Nightstalker serial murders, the McMartin Pre-School case and the "Twilight Zone" trial--two sets of court watchers often showed up at the proceedings. The first consisted mainly of elderly men, who viewed the daily sessions as if they were long-running, off-Broadway shows. The second was made up of lawyers seeking to pick up courtroom tips by watching the work of prominent criminal attorneys.

On slow days, Kennedy-Powell, whose office was about 20 yards from that of Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, was among those in the latter category.

Kennedy-Powell was appointed to the district attorney's sexual assault unit in 1986 and prosecuted several serial rapists, including one sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for kidnaping 12 schoolgirls.

Since being appointed to the bench by Gov. George Deukmejian, Kennedy-Powell has presided over few prominent cases. The one that probably drew the most public attention was a daylong preliminary hearing in which two men were ordered to stand trial in the savage beating of a Pasadena evangelist, Wallace Tope, who sought to stop looting at a Hollywood shopping center during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Among the issues that she will have to decide in the Simpson case is whether evidence was properly seized from the former football star's estate in the hours after the June 12 slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

In a recent Hollywood drug sales case, Kennedy-Powell encountered a similar issue. She dismissed charges against a defendant whose lawyer successfully argued that Los Angeles police officers should have obtained a search warrant before entering his apartment and finding three ounces of marijuana inside.

Although the police had no arrest or search warrant, the defendant, represented in Kennedy-Powell's court by Beverly Hills defense attorney Michael Chaney, did sign a consent form and a confession before the search was made. "I think she's wonderful," Chaney said Thursday. "She's everything a judge is supposed to be--evenhanded, knowledgeable and restrained."

But Steve Galeria, a police narcotics detective who had testified in court to knocking in the apartment door, said Thursday that Kennedy-Powell's ruling had shocked him. "I think she made a mistake in this particular case," he said. "(But) I have nothing bad to say about her."

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