With the impact of last week's "voluntary manslaughter" verdict in the Mary Winkler murder case in Selmer still reverberating, John Ford's trial on bribery and extortion charges headed toward its own conclusion this week in federal court in Memphis. And by now nobody — but nobody — was thinking slam-dunk about anything. Even if the Ford case were to go the government's way (and that was still in doubt at our press time), most observers who had logged time at the former state senator's trial — hearing all the testimony, weighing all the evidence — were well aware that the exact shape of the outcome still remained in doubt.
The reason? Juries these days weigh so many factors, including subjective ones, that dramatically contrasting conclusions can quite obviously be drawn from the same set of facts — especially when the prosecution and the defense make a point of presenting radically different interpretations of the same circumstances.
Consider what happened in Selmer: Rev. Matt Winkler had been slain a year ago by a shotgun blast, one that quite clearly came from a gun being held by his wife, Mary, who then fled with the couple's three children toward the Alabama coast before being apprehended in that state. Authorities both in Alabama and Tennessee promptly claimed to have confessions from Winkler.
End of story? Hardly. By the time crack defense attorneys Steve Farese and Leslie Ballin had presented their version of the case last week, enough doubt had been raised that the slain Matt Winkler himself appeared to have supplanted his surviving wife as the true "defendant" in the case.
Much of this might have been foreseen. Even while most news accounts of the crime last year marveled over how such an inexplicable and shocking crime could have occurred in what had appeared to be a model church-centered family, the Flyer came across the first chink in that construct. That was when a neighbor family disclosed to senior editor Jackson Baker that Matt Winkler had angrily and without much apparent provocation threatened to kill their dog for wandering over onto the Winkler property.
A similar story was told during the trial by a defense witness — a dog-owner from McMinnville, the Winklers' prior home. But that was as nothing compared to the testimony from the defendant herself about a lengthy history of alleged mistreatment from an overbearing and often irrational husband. Explicit claims by her of aberrant and oppressive sexual behavior on her late husband's part were buttressed somewhat by evidence of stored pornography on the Winklers' home computer, even if specific details (involving garish high-heeled shoes and a garish wig, among other artifacts) were in the "he said/she said" category. The late Rev. Winkler, of course, was well past saying.
There was much else that could be read one way or another, and it was up to a jury of 10 women and two men to unravel the contradictions. In the end, the unraveling produced a dominant thread that most observers had not expected. Jury nullification, as some critics of the verdict complained? We think not. It was a group operating as the dominant conscience of a community, and that, after all, is one way of defining what a jury of one's peers is and does.