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.

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.

Future jobs included a stint at a collection agency, where she used accents to coax gems of information by telephone in order to locate debtors who had skipped out on payments.

She transferred with that company to California and later went to work for one of the firm's clients, a lawyer.

"I had always considered law, but at that point I saw what he did and thought, 'I could do this too.' That's when I enrolled in law school," Kirkwood says. She bankrolled her schooling with a waitress job, more great training on the Human Condition.

Taking night classes, Kirkwood graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton in 1983 and passed the bar her first time out. Next came about two years of private work for a general law firm in Buena Park. Her boss, the late Gordon Shytress, did defense work, but Kirkwood says there was never a case he would pass on.

"If someone would slip and fall outside his office, he'd bring them in and represent them," Kirkwood says. "It was a high-volume practice."

It was a job that taught her what she did not want to do, she says, but it also gave her immediate experience that other larger firms would never have afforded her. Her first trial, in 1985, was a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the wife of a painter who crashed through a skylight and died. Kirkwood was thrown into a part of the case without much notice but tugged the necessary heartstrings from the widow on the stand. The damage awarded to her: $1.3 million.

About the same time, a law school classmate introduced Kirkwood to her future husband, Fred Horn, 51. The classmate, Deborah Passow, now a Los Angeles County prosecutor, was then a secretary in the gang detail of the district attorney's office. Horn was a prosecutor. In less than two years, Horn and Kirkwood were married.

By then, they had both befriended Kirkwood's charming but eccentric neighbor, Dewey Hood, a white-haired free spirit who nominally cleaned houses while offering pinko commentary about Reagan and Bush. Hood loaned them books from his vast and eclectic library and did odd jobs, mostly half-finished. He bragged proudly about the couple to other employers, including this reporter, who also paid him $50 a month so she could clean her own house.

Kirkwood was like the daughter Dewey never had. He was poor but frugal. He could never have afforded the season tickets to classical music concerts that Kirkwood and Horn treated him to. In return, he taught them all he knew about the various composers; it could fill a book.

When he died 16 months ago at age 73, on a dream trip to Germany, Kirkwood and Horn had his body flown back and buried in Santa Ana, then threw a wake for all his friends to swap Dewey tales.

If people can be judged by the company they keep, Kirkwood would be considered extremely patient and fond of characters.

"He had such a love for life," she says wistfully. "We really miss him."

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In August, 1986, Kirkwood joined the district attorney's office, starting out on drunk-driving cases. She worked for the felony panel handling a variety of cases and worked for a battery of supervisors, first in narcotics, then gangs. The latter was a disheartening stint, she said--so many kids, problems of poverty and generations of membership.

"You just always feel like you're holding your finger in the dike," she lamented. "Very occasionally, you reach someone young enough where maybe you can change (the course of their path) in gangs . . . but it's terribly depressing."

Two years ago, prosecutor Evans hired Kirkwood onto the homicide panel, home to nine of the office's top lawyers.

When Kirkwood finished at Western State in 1983, 40% of the graduates were female. But in the Orange County district attorney's office, it is still uncommon to find women on the homicide panel, traditionally a male stronghold. The first to break the gender barrier was Jill Roberts, in 1984. (Although Pattie Manoukian was the first female prosecutor to try a murder case, in 1982, she was not the first female prosecutor permanently assigned to the homicide team.) Kirkwood is the senior of two women currently on the team; Debbie Lloyd is the latest addition.

Homicide lawyers supervised by Evans call themselves the Blue Team, while those reporting to Rick King, including Kirkwood and Lloyd, jokingly dub themselves the Pink Team.

Both King and Evans say they recognize that women trying murder cases face challenges in the court that men do not. Much of it, they say, is society's ambivalent views of what a woman's role should be.

"I think a woman has to be more conscious of (her) presence in court," Kirkwood said. "If a man is aggressive, he is (perceived as) strong. If you're aggressive in your arguments and a woman, you're bitchy."

While men might not attend to their suit color or cut, women find themselves having to make sure their skirts aren't too short, their heels too high.

"One thing you definitely do not want to do is look sexy," Kirkwood said.

She keeps her shoulder-length blonde hair styled simple and sleek, her suits tailored and her skirts knee-skimming and often pleated.

In closing arguments, she finds it helpful to be slightly apologetic with a jury if she's been too forceful.

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Take her most recent court victory, People vs. Gifford Madden.

The 30-year-old Westminster man was accused of murder in the shooting death of a fellow motorist, whom Madden believed cut him off in traffic Dec. 20, 1993. His defense: acute stress disorder following his own shooting a few weeks earlier during a robbery at his home.

Victim Daniel Martin Renz, 24, pulled out of an El Torito parking lot in front of Madden, who then tailgated him around the corner until Renz pulled over and stopped. Renz, leaving his girlfriend in the car, got out and walked back toward Madden's car. Madden shot him in the stomach; Renz managed to drive home but later died.

Madden's attorney, public defender Tim Severin, made a strong argument for self-defense, and Kirkwood thought it might sway the jury. Severin presented other cases of home invasions and carjackings in which citizens had been harmed. He appealed to the common person's fear of crime in the home. He brought in two experts on the heightened state of fear experienced by victims of crime. He said his client was suffering "hyper-vigilance." He emphasized the man's size, the number of beers and the methamphetamine ingested by the motorist nearing Madden's car. "When a rattlesnake rattles its tail," he asked, "do ya wait for it to strike before ya shoot it?"

Kirkwood considered the jurors: She figured they would punish Madden in some way for killing a man, and they may not have been impressed with the victim. But she sensed they liked the experts. How to undermine their testimony without putting off the jury?

First, she painted Madden a questionable character whose source of income was murky. He had fled the shooting scene, had joked with friends earlier that night by announcing himself at their house as "Johnny Law." He later ditched the gun, lied to police about his whereabouts and culpability, and bragged about the killing.

Kirkwood reminded the jury of all this in her closing argument, and, rather than attack experts the jury seemed to believe, she pointed out that they spoke in generalities and that only one provided a specific diagnosis about this particular defendant. Of course, she added, they were paid thousands of dollars to say what they said.

"If (Madden) was sick (after he was shot), he should have stayed home," Kirkwood told the jury, adding that if having surgery were license to kill, there would be dead people all over the freeways.

"I'm feelin' a little frail," Kirkwood said facetiously, holding her hand up as if it were a revolver. "Pardon me , I just had a surgery."

Toward the end of her closing argument to the jurors, she stressed that they shouldn't be swayed by the personalities of herself and defense counsel. "Maybe I've been too aggressive at times," she told jurors. Or maybe "not aggressive enough, or effective enough. . . . Maybe I remind you of your ex-wife. Maybe (Severin) reminds you of F. Lee Bailey."

But she stressed that Madden, not the victim, not the lawyers, was on trial. And that, while he could have just displayed the gun to scare away his victim, or fired a warning shot, he chose instead to aim and pull the trigger.

In the end, the jury didn't buy the defense portrait of a man frightened by his own wounding and remorseful about taking another man's life.

Clanking the cell door shut on Madden was an enlargement of an envelope that Kirkwood toted into court. The envelope had carried a letter from Madden to another jail prisoner. Its return address read: "Cut Me Off . . . You Die, CA 90803."

The jury deliberated only hours before returning its verdict: Madden was found guilty of second-degree murder and awaits sentencing of 15 years to life in state prison.

"I think she did a very fine job," said juror Danny O'Conner of Buena Park. "There was a lot of evidence, and she went after the few people who weren't telling the truth, and it was quite obvious by the people she put forth. The defense did a good job, but I think they were trying to make Madden out to be sympathetic. But he was in control, having the gun, all the way up to the point where he pointed and fired. If it had been up to me, it would have been first-degree murder. (Several) others felt the same."

One of them was juror Patricia Paulsen of Fountain Valley.

"As far as Ms. Kirkwood went, she did an excellent job. She really zeroed in on key points, kept them in front of us at all times and couched everything in a very understandable language. She didn't talk over our heads. She relied on our intelligence."

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Despite her head aching from a bit too much celebrating the night before, Kirkwood was in court by 8 a.m. the morning after the Madden victory, filing motions in one of her eight other homicide cases, which she juggles as they move through the trial process.

They include the slaying of millionaire Dirk Houston, allegedly as the result of a plot by his young wife and their gardener, who turned out to be lovers. Kirkwood alleges that the gardener paid a friend and an accomplice to kill Houston on Dec. 22, 1991. Sometime later, the wife and the lover were found dead in a motel room, the victims of an apparent suicide pact.

Kirkwood has yet to try a death penalty case. In the prosecutors office, there are attorneys who advocate seeking the death penalty regularly and others, like herself, who say it "should be saved for the baddest dude."

Her toughest case to date, she says, was probably the 1994 trial of Wayne Yoshisato, who in 1990 sexually assaulted, then beat to death, the 14-month-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The case had dragged through the courts due to appeals on disclosure issues--a term now familiar to us from the Trial of the Century-- and the killer, Kirkwood thought, was a menace who needed to be put away.

But she is also proud of the double murder convictions in October of Scott Alden Whitson. The 22-year-old was sober but was thought to be fleeing from what he thought were pursuing officers when he ran a red light at 80 m.p.h. and smashed into the car of a mother ferrying her baby-sitter home. The mother, Janice Diehm of Fountain Valley, and Whitson's passenger, Derick Romo of Moreno Valley, were killed in the crash.

"She's a top-notch attorney, a real ethical opponent," said Gary Pohlson, president of the Orange County Bar Assn. and the lawyer who defended Whitson. "She does a real good job. Very thorough, very prepared."

Unlike many prosecutors such as Clark, whom Kirkwood has met and whom her husband worked with when he was a Los Angeles prosecutor, Kirkwood says she would not have a problem working for the other side, as a defense attorney. But neither is she in any rush to leave what she loves.

"I guess some of my options down the road are to seek a judgeship or go on to management, but what I've really enjoyed is trying cases, so I don't know. But at some point you do (need to look at a change). I think the office sort of expects you to. But what I do now gives me a lot of satisfaction."

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Carolyn Kirkwood

Age: 43

Background: Born in Salt Lake City, but family soon moved to Akron, Ohio. Worked three years as an Ohio Bell information operator. Attended University of Colorado at Boulder as a philosophy major. Graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton in 1983. Joined the Orange County district attorney's office in August, 1986; has been on homicide panel two years.

Family: Husband, Frederick P. Horn, Orange County Superior Court judge.

Pastimes: Reading, traveling, attending concerts from classical to rock.

On the death penalty: Favors it, but only for the "baddest dude." She adds: "My opinion has probably changed since I began with this office. I started out probably as an opponent of the death penalty."

On victims' rights: "The system still doesn't focus on the victim. . . . If we let it, the system lets the victim fall through the cracks. I think our office does a pretty good job of not letting that happen. . . . Part of seeing what victims have gone through has resulted in my change in opinion on the death penalty."

On her toughest case, the murder prosecution of Wayne Yoshisato, who sexually assaulted, then beat to death, the 14-month-old daughter of his then-girlfriend: "He was very articulate and had a very supportive family," so he didn't look like a 'typical' killer, if there is such a thing."

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