Prosecutor in “Midnight in the Garden” murder dies in accident

Dep Kirkland was successful at many things in life — author, actor, director, lawyer and consumer advocate.

But he was never able to close the book on his early role as a prosecutor in Savannah’s most sensational murder case. He couldn’t do that any more than Savannah could turn its back on the thousands of tourists who flocked to town after the murder was chronicled in 1994′s best-selling book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Earlier this year, Kirkland wrote in “Savannah” magazine that “Midnight” continues “to follow me to this day, 40 years later.”

Deppish “Dep” Kirkland — a Savannah native who gained widespread acclaim in “Midnight” but later gave up practicing law to pursue a career in stage and film — died Sunday. He was 72.

Authorities said he fell overboard and drowned on Lake Jackson in Jasper County during Labor Day weekend. The boat’s operator, identified as Bruce K. Philips, 64, of Covington, has been charged with boating under the influence. The investigation is continuing, said Mark McKinnon, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Kirkland’s life was forever changed on May 2, 1981, when Savannah police summoned him to 429 Bull Street, home of antiques dealer and historic preservationist James A. “Jim” Williams. A 21-year-old with whom Williams had a sexual relationship was found dead, shot three times with a World War II-era Luger. Williams said the victim fired first, and he shot back in self-defense.

Kirkland, then Chatham County’s chief assistant district attorney, was tapped to play a crucial role in the first of what would be a state record of four trials of Williams.

Kirkland convinced a jury to find Williams guilty, only to have the verdict thrown out on appeal. A second conviction was overturned, followed by a mistrial and then an acquittal for Williams, who died less than a year later of natural causes.

The case against Williams and the book “put Savannah on the map,” said Jan Skutch, a retired newspaper reporter who covered Williams from his first trial to his death. Besides chronicling the fatal shooting and subsequent trials, the book gave an intriguing account of Williams’ rise from poverty, the city’s society, its quirky socialites and characters, transvestites and a practicioner of voodoo.

Kirkland left Savannah before Williams’ first retrial, accepting a job with newly elected Gov. Joe Frank Harris as a lawyer advocate for consumers in utility rate-hike negotiations.

“We needed a lawyer to do that, and Dep was willing to move to Atlanta from Savannah,” said Rusty Sewell, Harris’ executive counsel. “I think he did a good job.”

Sewell said Kirkland and his then-father-in-law had been Harris supporters during his campaign for governor.

After running the state’s Consumer Utility Counsel for a few years, Kirkland moved to Washington, D.C., as a lawyer for the satellite television industry and later the Edison Project, a planned network of cutting-edge private schools.

In midlife, he abruptly switched gears, leaving the legal profession to move to New York to train as an actor and writer while getting his feet wet in commercials, short films, and theater productions, including ones he’d written. He said that his mother had pushed him to be a lawyer and that he knew it was not the career for him the day he entered law school at the University of Georgia.

Later, Kirkland would suggest that his career change was not as dramatic as it seemed and that there’s a common thread from the law to the stage and screen. “It’s all about the narrative — ‘the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how,’” he wrote in “Savannah” magazine.

Kirkland is arguably best known as an actor for playing Police Chief Mike Boyd in the television series “Twin Peaks” and as a guest star in an episode of “Law and Order.”

In 2015, he wrote a book, “LAWYER GAMES: After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It was sold in bookstores alongside “Midnight.” But it did not come close to the same success. “Midnight” said to have sold 3 million copies in 23 languages.

A movie by Clint by Eastwood was also made based on the original “Midnight.”

LAWYER GAMES” was billed as “truth — including facts never introduced in a courtroom.”

“He made out a case that Jim Williams was guilty from day one,” said reporter Skutch, who recalls discussing that book with Kirkland the last time the two met. “If you are a lawyer, you have to understand how the system works. And if you have money, it works for you.”

In recent years, Kirkland lived in California. But friends said he had been in Savannah lately, scouting out locations for the filming of “MsTrial,” a play he wrote and starred in that was staged in West Hollywood and Off-Broadway New York.

Spencer Lawton, the longtime district attorney for the Eastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Savannah and Chatham County, could not be reached by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for comment on Kirkland’s death.

But Lawton told “Savannah Nowthat Kirkland was a “fiercely determined worker” with a “brilliant, analytical mind.”

“He was just very, very smart,” he said. “His passing represents the loss of a considerable talent. He could’ve become anything he wanted to.”

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