“Midnight” Marches On

Photo courtesy of DEP KIRKLAND

For Dep Kirkland, the Jim Williams case was simple — until it morphed into a mythical creature with incredible scope and power that affects him to this day

Photos courtesy of  DEP KIRKLAND

In the pre-dawn hours of May 2, 1981, the phone rang in my Trustees’ Garden townhouse. A Savannah Police Department detective requested my presence at 429 Bull St., where a shooting had taken place. Even though I was the chief assistant district attorney, being called to the scene of a shooting was unusual. “Unusual” would prove to be the most understated adjective of a lifetime. 

The murder case known as State of Georgia vs. James A. Williams, first tried in February 1982, would continue for more than eight years, producing a trail of bloody legal battles of legendary proportion and four murder trials. It would also follow me to this day, 40 years later.

Kirkland at his law office in the former C&S Bank building

Yes, I was there while the body of Danny Hansford was still on the floor in the study at Mercer House. I was the one who informed James “Jim” Williams that he was being arrested for murder. I assembled most of the scientific evidence and tried the first case, alongside District Attorney Spencer Lawton. I would leave Savannah before Williams’ second, third and fourth trials, but the case would follow me — to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles. At virtually every stop along that journey, one that took me from trial lawyer to writer, actor and director, the Williams case tagged along, due to what Savannahians know as “The Book.” That is, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or simply “Midnight.” John Berendt’s book spent more than 200 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, sold millions of copies, has been translated into 20 or more languages, became a motion picture directed by Clint Eastwood (albeit a relatively unsuccessful one) and sparked a tourism tsunami that has swept up Savannah in its wake.


Even today, millions of people  know “The Book” while knowing almost nothing about the case — the real case. I was practically obliged to fill them in and, invariably, I would get the same feedback. “That’s a better story than the one in the book,” they,d say. “You have to write that one.” It took awhile, but I finally did.


In every major city I lived in, when asked where I was from originally, if I said Savannah, the followup question was predetermined: “Oh, do you know about that murder case and the book?” If I said, “Yes, actually I tried that case,” it was followed by “What?!” And soon we were into a discussion of  a murder about which, it turned out, most people were almost completely ignorant. Even today, millions of people know “The Book” while knowing almost nothing about the case — the real case. I was practically obliged to fill them in and, invariably, I would get the same feedback. “That’s a better story than the one in the book,” they’d say. “You have to write that one.” It took a while, but I finally did. Today, my book, LAWYER GAMES: After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is sold alongside “Midnight” at E. Shaver, Bookseller; The Book Lady; Barnes & Noble; and anywhere books are sold worldwide, including Amazon.

Artist’s interpretation of physical evidence presented in the case. The original photo pointed to Williams doctoring the crime scene and prompted a memorable response from Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charles L. Weltner: “Everyone knows a dead man can’t put a chair leg on his trousers.”
Kirkland, right, executes a federal search warrant with help from electronics specialists.

This particular essay, however, is not about the murder case. It’s a fascinating tale but a massive undertaking. A quick stop along the trail: Did Williams kill Hansford? Of course he did. Was it self-defense? Not even close. In fact, it is scientifically impossible for Williams to have been innocent of the crime. Why he was finally cut loose eight years later by an Augusta jury remains astounding, but there are reasons, even if they defy logic and science. Williams would drop dead eight months and two days after the acquittal, across the threshold of the study where Hansford died. Ironically, if we correct the staged position of Hansford’s body, the position of both men’s arms and hands in death would have been identical, clasped to the chest and clenched in a classic cadaveric spasm, known in forensic lingo as a “death grip.” (Speaking of Hansford, people tend to forget that the “Midnight” case involved the slaying of a young man who, no matter his personal flaws, did not deserve to be killed. Danny Hansford has been portrayed as little more than a wild beast, barely human and hardly worth caring about. Despite the mythology and delicious decadence surrounding “Midnight,” we might want to consider offering a little more respect for the victim. One of my most indelible memories of this case was going through Hansford’s personal effects and finding the sketch of Williams that Hansford had drawn, with the word “school” written over and over on the back.)


When I left law, “Midnight” continued to follow me, not only in my own consciousness but also in a very practical manner. 


The author of that article wondered how I went from trial lawyer to writer and actor working in the creative arts. You might wonder, too. Law school at the University of Georgia was my mother’s idea. She’d have made a good lawyer herself. But for me, I found myself drawn to the “what happened” aspects of cases, not the process or the paperwork. That fascination with stories — inhabiting them fully, living them out in my imagination — led to today, where I write them down and, when written by myself and others, act them out.

When I left law, “Midnight” continued to follow me, not only in my own consciousness but also in a very practical manner. My current project is the film adaptation of my stage play, titled MsTRIAL, which has been produced in Los Angeles and New York, most recently Off-Broadway. I am in Savannah now, to put the film together. When the play was produced in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times wrote a feature article about me and the play. The obvious reason for the interest and the “hook” for the story? Right. The “Midnight” murder case.

Do trial lawyers make good actors? I’d argue not. Lawyers are not known for emotional vulnerability or giving over control to anyone or anything, which is why I had initial difficulty with the popular Meisner Technique of acting. Acting a role is one thing; living it out, truthfully, is something else entirely. But there’s a common thread from the law to the stage and screen. It’s all about the narrative — the “what,” “why” and “how.” 

“Midnight” has all of those riveting elements, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when I recently heard word of a possible Broadway musical based on the book. In my opinion, such a thing would be absurd and even obscene. A musical about a sociopath killing his lover, covering it up and eventually getting away with it? We might as well create “OJ – The Killer – The Musical.” But, much like the Simpson case, if the money-hounds in entertainment can squeeze another dime from this murder and its aftermath, they will do so, gleefully. 

The tale of “Midnight” and the world’s fascination with Savannah is not without a touch of macabre contradiction, and no one dependent on the city’s tourist trade has protested. Savannah merits the attention, though, so I won’t complain, either. Great stories love irony. 



DEP KIRKLAND

Savannah native Dep Kirkland left the local DA’s office while the first appeal of the Williams case was pending, moving on to litigate utility matters as Consumer Utility Counsel under former Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris in Atlanta. He built and ran the first Anti-Piracy Task Force in Washington, D.C., provided legal work for The Edison Project (now EdisonLearning) and was a member of Georgia and D.C. Bar Associations before pursuing a career in the creative arts. Today, Kirkland is an actor, writer and director in Los Angeles, where he serves as chairman of Isle of Hope Entertainment. The second edition of his book, LAWYER GAMES: After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was published in 2021. His play, MsTRIAL, is now in pre-production as a feature film. 

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