It's Only Make-Believe: Separating Fact from Fiction in the Ford and Winkler Trials 


"I just made it up." That was the refrain offered over and over in downtown Memphis Wednesday as undercover informant Tim Willis described the ever more elaborate cover story he had to keep ad-libbing in a harrowing 2005 encounter with defendant John Ford. (See story.)

THE WINKLER CASE: Willis' remark might also serve as a mantra that skeptics could associate with much of the testimony on both sides of that case so far, as well as with much of what was said in a dramatic final day at the Mary Winkler murder trial in Selmer, 100 miles away.

An example of the latter: Having put his client on the stand as the final - and climactic witness in the case - defense attorney Steve Farese asked Winkler about an incident in which she turned up with a black eye. She acknowledged that she had been hit in the eye with a softball, a mishap that happened out in public.

Winkler then testified that, once she got home, her husband, the late Church of Christ minister Matthew Winkler whom she is accused of killing, began fuming and snorting at her for some imagined misdeed and let go with a kick in the same eye. That's one of those things a juror has either to believe or not believe. Either incident - the public sporting accident or the monstrous spousal abuse - could have caused the black eye.

Similarly, the centerpiece of the Winkler defense - that the blast from a 12-gauge shotgun that killed the Rev. Winkler was somehow inadvertent - demanded a rather significant suspension of disbelief on he part of jurors. The accused widow offered testimony Wednesday that paralleled what she had told an Alabama investigator in a rambling, almost incoherent statement when she was apprehended in that state last year, a day after the crime.

The Telltale 'Pop'

She didn't know anything had happened, the distressed Mary Winkler said, until she heard a loud pop from the weapon. She offered no convincing explanation as to why she happened to be holding it - and pointing it in her sleeping husband's direction - when it discharged.

Though such a story may have challenged credulity, it was consistent with the testimony of a psychologist put on earlier this week by the defense, who said, more or less, that so marked a psychic disability might well have resulted from lengthy history of alleged abuse by Winkler's husband, together with other misfortunes -- notably her victimization by an Internet scam and some subsequent financial mismanagement by the accused that was potentially felonious.

But the defense story was no more incredible than the account by a Tennessee Bureau of Investigations officer who interviewed Winkler shortly after the Alabama agent was through interrogating her. The T.B.I. man then produced, instead of the earlier channeling of unknown tongues, a tidy and logically precise summary of intentional murder that he then prevailed on the remorseful fugitive (who had been headed south, the three Winkler daughters in tow, to find a "fun" time at a beach) to sign.

Sex "in the bottom"

Then there was the kinky business testified to by Winkler on Wednesday. It took only a look at the hulking Matthew Winkler in family photographs, contrasted with the almost gnomish appearance of his generally distressed-looking wife, to suggest an abusive mismatch. But the Kraft-Ebbing stuff that was ladled out Wednesday was another matter.

Handing his client a sack, defense attorney Steve Farese then asked her to disgorge and describe its contents - a gaudy platform shoe with a heel as long as the poor woman's arm, along with a frowsy-looking wig. Real bordello stuff. "Was this the kind of shoe you wore to church?" Farese asked sweetly. No, she said.

"Then what did you need it for?" he followed up. She appeared to give the matter thought, then answered in an embarrassed voice, "I didn't need it." Both the shoe and the wig were implements imposed on her by her husband's restless sexual imagination, she testified, going on to say that she was continually forced to look at the Rev. Winkler's teeming pornography collection and emulate the acts therein demonstrated - including sex "in the bottom" and oral copulation.

There was in all this a certain parallel to the case several years ago of the Menendez brothers, who murdered their parents, inherited their fortune, then, when charged with the crime, blamed everything on a veritable catalogue of wicked incestuous stuff that had been tried out on them by their late father.

Again: You either believe this kind of thing or you don't, and the judgment made by Winkler's jurors, individually and collectively, will determine whether they see her as a first-degree murderer, a manslaughter case, or perhaps (though not likely) an outright acquitee.

With the jury having been presented the case late Wednesday, that concluding chapter could come as early as Thursday.

THE FORD CASE: Considerations of storyline loom large as well in former state Senator Ford's trial, which will go on for a while longer. So far all the evidence has come from the prosecution - though defense attorney Mike Scholl has had his moments in cross-examination.

In general, Scholl has made as much as he can of the obvious - that the witnesses against Ford, who is accused of accepting some $55,000 in bribes to cook legislation on behalf of the bogus FBII front company E-Cycle, were pretending to be something they were not, agents of a "legit," if law-breaking, company wanting to recycle the used computers of Tennessee officialdom for resale overseas.

"That was a lie, wasn't it?" Scholl repeatedly asked FBI man "L.C. McNeil" of this or that claim he'd made while posing as an E-Cycle executive. "It was consistent with the role I was portraying," McNeil would answer just as methodically.

"Methodically," indeed, as in "method" acting . As the agent assigned most directly to work with Ford, McNeil often saw himself compelled into dramatic improvisations quite as agile as those performed by Willis in his tenuous February 2005 tete-a-tete with a suspicious and threatening Ford.

One of the premises of E-Cycle's existence was, after all, that its main offices were in Atlanta. Since Ford, once on the hook, would occasionally travel into Atlanta for purposes of his own, he would often suggesting meeting with McNeil and other presumed E-Cycle personnel in the Georgia city.

Telephone Tag

For the very good reason that no E-Cycle facility existed in Atlanta, McNeil would have to come up with quick reasons for not being in his home base. Sometimes he would be called off at the last minute to deal with a wayward son at school in Chicago. Other times he would be chasing down Jamie Fox in L.A. or suddenly heading off to Mexico or Hawaii on this or that music- or movie-related errand.

All of this was pure improv, Neverland stuff, and at least once, as heard in one of the unending series of audios heard in court, McNeil seemed to forget where he was supposed to be in a telephone call to Ford, starting out at some airport in the continental 48, Chicago, maybe, or L.A., and ending up, minutes later, in Oahu. In actual fact, he could have been just around the corner from Ford in Memphis or Nashville or, more likely, well within walking distance of Peachtree Boulevard in home-base Atlanta.

Once, having accompanied Ford to an Usher concert in Memphis, McNeil learned that the senator's nephew, then U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., would be attending in the company of someone who would know McNeil's true name and identify. The agent promptly invented a devastating fire that, he had just learned, was about to consume the wholly fictitious E-Cycle offices in Atlanta and made his exit before the congressman's party arrived. The envelope, please.

Given the facts that the government seems to have expended copious amounts of time, energy, and cash over a multi-year period to nab a dozen or so alleged crooks in Tennessee's various governmental spheres, it was probably fair game for Scholl to portray the principals of the Tennessee Waltz sting as profligate high-lifers and dissemblers, guiltier in their determined chicanery than the put-upon "consultant" they were after and he was defending..

In particular, McNeil's cover, that of someone who dabbled big-time in show business, gave his end of the sting a rather gilded edge. He and other E-Cyclers entertained Ford and the Bureau's other marks aboard yachts and at high-priced sporting events and entertainment venues, and seemed to constantly be turning up giggling female escorts with names like Zekia.

'Scholl Bald, DiScenza Lean'

Chief prosecutor Tim DiScenza, in a re-direct of McNeil, was forced to strip away some of the government side's own embroidery - cutting to the essential fact that McNeil and the other agents and informants might talk of music and the movies and other circumstantial bling-bling, but the payments they made were restricted to getting specific governmental favors from the targeted officials.

Since even a single recalcitrant juror could hang what would seem in many ways an over-loaded case against Ford, the task of separating fact from fiction, and the attitudes and auras generated by either mode, would seem all-important as the case proceeds - keeping in mind that the defense has not yet even begun its own presentation.

So at this point both sides are keeping an attentive eye on appearances. DiScenza may have been only half-joking when, during a break on Wednesday, he wandered over to the media gallery and suggested, to the two or three sketch artists laboring away at their pads for local TV purposes, "Remember. Scholll bald. DiScenza lean."

Considering that defense attorney Scholl is only moderately balding and that the heavy-set DiScenza is anything but lean, that's the problem in a nutshell, right there. What, as Pontius Pilate famously asked, is truth. That, as we now know, depends on what "is" is.

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