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VIEWPOINT: Trying Times

No one should be surprised at whatever verdict comes in the Ford and Winkler trials.

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On the surface, there is little to connect the well-observed tribunals now going on concurrently in downtown Memphis and in outlying Selmer, 100 miles away. But there are synchronicites — and more.

Steve Farese, Leslie Ballin, and Michael Scholl, all of them well acquainted with each other, belong to a small fraternity of well-regarded blue-chip defense attorneys in the greater Memphis area. Farese and Ballin, used to working as a team, have undertaken to defend Mary Winkler of the murder of her husband, a well-known Church of Christ minister. Scholl is defending former state senator John Ford, the best-known defendant in the Tennessee Waltz bribery/extortion sting.

Both defendants are, as they say, up against it. By her own admission, Mary Winkler had issues with Matthew Winkler and was physically holding the shotgun on her sleeping husband when it fired once and lethally on that fateful morning more than a year ago. Nor do a multitude of surveillance videos introduced by the prosecution leave any doubt that John Ford took large sums of cash in connection with legislative services promised and performed for E-Cycle, an FBI-front company supposedly in business to refurbish used computers.

But neither trial is quite the slam-dunk it would appear to be. Farese and Ballin have labored hard to suggest that the Winklers’ 12-gauge might have gone off on its own and that their client, clearly drowning in a personal stew that included a history of abuse and, of all things, being duped by an Internet lottery scam, was as much victim as perpetrator.
And even Ford, despite his dual reputation as bon vivant and kingfish in the wheeler-dealer world of Nashville’s Capitol Hill, is being portrayed by Scholl as a veritable innocent under siege from government-funded high-livers determined to bait-and-switch the reluctant senator into compliance with an extortion scheme.

That a number of close observers think that both defenses may have made headway is in itself a reflection of the times.

Through his cross-examination of FBI operatives so far, Scholl has drawn a portrait of an entrapment operation whose principals, to further their sting, lived lavishly — consuming mountains of public money, driving “high-end” luxury cars, imbibing impressive quantities of food and drink, entertaining their marks aboard confiscated yachts, and staying only in the finest hotels.

The resultant storyline blurred distinctions and may have given the jurors, all stoutly working class in appearance, a plausible alternative to the usual cops-and-robbers, good vs. evil scenario.
Dividing lines have also come under attack in the Selmer trial, where, both in their cross-examinations and in presenting their own witnesses, Farese and Ballin have done their best to obscure the presumed distinctions between the victim and the accused.
The late Rev. Winkler, a towering man, has so far been represented as A) a committed male chauvinist; B) an importer of suspect images to the household computers; and C) a man given to rages, who on more than one occasion threatened to kill neighbors’ dogs that had disturbed his peace of mind and who once — reacting to toothache medication, said his father, also a minister — locked his wife out of the family’s house.

Nor has Mary Winkler, who appeared waif-like in the first pictures of her incarceration, made any points toward sanctification. During the trial, she has managed for the most part to appear stoic and then some — even cracking grins or, alleged one TV reporter who was there, even offering what looked like a smirk when the Winklers’ oldest daughter gave dramatic testimony about hearing the shot and seeing her father’s body.
Both tribunals involve trusted members of the social order — a state senator and a minister’s wife — and both have so far involved defenses that impugn the reliability of both law-enforcement officials themselves and the would-be incriminating documents they have brought to court.

Ever since the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdict of 1995, the issue of “jury nullification” has concerned students of American justice. Another way of putting that is to suggest that our system rarely metes out pure justice, administering its verdicts, rather, within a defining social context.

That’s one good reason why no one should be surprised at any verdict that comes out of either trial.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor, whose trial reports, along with those of senior editor John Branston, appear at this Web site.

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