ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE PRELIMINARY REARING IN THE O.J. Simpson case, prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark was handed an envelope. She made a point of asking Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell's permission to open it in full view of the court and those following the trial on television. Annoyed, defense lawyer Robert Shapiro protested, "It seems like a little bit of grandstanding."

"Excuse me," Clark shot back in mock amazement. "I can't believe I heard Mr. Shapiro say that."

Though merely an opening volley in what promises to be a long and contentious proceeding, the exchange went a long way toward clearing up a few key questions. Is Deputy-District Attorney Marcia Clark, 40, who appeal's so serious in her off-the-rack blue suits, a match for the suave, savvy Shapiro and his team of celebrity lawyers? And does the L.A. district attorney's office—still smarting from last year's high-profile shortfalls in the Menendez and Reginald Denny trials—have the big guns to handle the big cases?

According to those who know Clark, friend and foe, the answer is a resounding yes. "She's very intense, one of the best, and she never gives up—ever," says Deputy D.A. John Lynch, who was Clark's boss from 1988 to 1992. "She's an ass-kicker, no doubt about it," says her mentor, veteran prosecutor Harvey Giss.

Should the O.J. Simpson case go to trial, as most predict it will, it will be Clark's 21st murder prosecution since joining the D.A.'s office in 1981. (She has a "very high conviction rate," says an office spokesperson.) Perhaps her biggest case was the 1991 trial of Robert Bardo, who was accused of stalking and murdering 21-year-old TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer of My Sister Sam. She won the case—and in the process discovered that she enjoyed the spotlights directed at a celebrity trial. "She likes the press conferences," says Stephen Galindo, Bardo's lawyer. "She knows the media is after quick sound bites."

In the L.A. prosecutor's office, Clark is recognized as an expert in trials hinging on DNA testing and circumstantial evidence—both of which figure to be key factors in the Simpson case. Another useful courtroom quality: she's unflappable. Though Clark, a mother of two young sons, filed for divorce from her husband of 12 years, Gordon, a computer analyst, on June 9—just four days before D.A. Gil Garcetti tapped her to take on Simpson—she has plunged enthusiastically into the case. She spent part of her July 4 weekend checking out Nicole Simpson's town house, and during the preliminary hearing she and co-counsel William Hodgman have been un-fazed by the defense team's attempt to throw out key evidence.

The daughter of an administrator for the Food and Drug Administration, Clark was born in Berkeley, Calif., but spent her youth moving from city to city as her father was relocated. After graduating from UCLA in 1974, she got her law degree in 1979 from the Southwestern University School of Law in L.A. She spent the next two years as a criminal defense lawyer with the small L.A. firm of Brodey and Price before moving to the prosecutor's office.

Though friends describe Clark, who earns a salary in the range of $73,824 to $96,828, as "very private," one also points out that she is "quick to laugh." A former ballet dancer, she works out regularly with a trainer at a local gym. "You should see her biceps," a friend says. She also "plays a mean game of pool," adds a longtime associate, and "has a mouth as foul as any guy." In the old days, this pal says, Clark could and would "hold her own with the cops in tossing down Scotch or bourbon."

For Clark, however, holding her own is not enough—especially when facing the trial of a lifetime. "She's tough," says Harvey Giss. "She's steel. I expect her to break bones in this case."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Joyce Wagner.