Partner in Crime

Death Threats? Media Madness? All in a day's work for Steve Farese.

It's a Friday in September at James Davis clothing store in Laurelwood, and within hours Steve Farese Sr. will board a plane for New York. The next morning he'll be interviewed by Campbell Brown of NBC's Today show about -- what else? -- the Mary Winkler trial scheduled for late October.

But first, the tall, silver-templed attorney is scheduled to be fitted for a new suit, compliments of Leslie and Marvin Ballin "for something I did for them recently," he says. Before the store's tailor goes to work, however, Farese sits down with Memphis and talks about his family's law firm, how the Winkler case came to land on his desk, media interviews and death threats, and why he chose Leslie Ballin to help him defend a woman charged with killing her preacher-husband.

In 1938, John B. Farese established a law practice in the North Mississippi town of Ashland. With his wife Orene, a schoolteacher and later a Mississippi state representative and senator, the couple raised four children: three sons -- John Booth, Steve, and Jeff -- who still maintain the firm's national renown, along with a couple of sons and cousins; and a daughter, prominent divorce attorney Kay Farese Turner, who has her own practice in Memphis.

From Ole Miss, where he played basketball against LSU's late and legendary "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Steve Farese received both his undergraduate and his law degree. "I was sworn in [as a lawyer] on Elvis' death day," he adds, "in August 1977."

At first, like Leslie Ballin, he worked any case that walked in the door. "But my father was known for his criminal work," says Farese, "and after his death I sort of took that over." While some cases -- such as the capital murder trial of FedEx pilot Michael Mullins, which Farese worked with Ballin -- have won him kudos for his courtroom skills, others required behind-the-scenes savvy. In 1995, he negotiated immunity for then 19-year-old Sarah Edmondson, a member of Oklahoma's most well-known political family, in exchange for testimony about her boyfriend's role in a shooting death.

Sensational as that story was, it didn't "develop a life of its own," as Farese describes what happens these days when a dramatic story hits the media. As soon as Matthew Winkler's murder made the news, "we got 500 calls the first day," says Farese, who along with Ballin, has appeared on numerous shows, including Geraldo at Large and Paula Zahn NOW, and been contacted by reps from Oprah and Dr. Phil. "I'm probably sadistic," laughs Farese, remembering his chat with the latter TV personality's spokesman. "Dr. Phil's person called and said he'd really like to help, when can he come to see her, he can be there anytime. I told them, 'Great, we need all the help we can get. Dr. Phil would sign a confidentiality agreement, he'd work for me, and he couldn't use anything he heard on his show.' That took care of that one."

Media hoopla aside, Farese's focus is on his client, and he tells how he came to get Mary Winkler's case. "I was going into federal court and just south of Riverside Drive, I saw the Amber Alert," he says, referring to the alarm sent out for Winkler's then-missing children. Later that day he received a call from Memphis lawyer Mike Cook, who said, "My first cousin's daughter is in trouble. Can you help?"

Farese chose Ballin to work with him on the case for several reasons: "He has a great knowledge of Tennessee law. And I know his style; I'm comfortable with it. We're like Frick and Frack. Leslie has a very smooth and deliberate way of getting to a point he wants to accent. I'm more a knife-to-the-throat guy, a hatchet guy. I'm not afraid of asking the questions you don't know the answer to. You're taught never to do that, but sometimes it makes clients come out of their shell and show the jury who they really are."

Farese lets body language speak for him, too. He'll start his cross-examination across the room, move a step forward with every pointed question, and finally "box the client in," jabbing a finger at his face, and saying, "As a matter of fact, Mr. Jones, you're a liar." He's also been known to hurl a fire extinguisher to the floor to represent a murder weapon and, in closing arguments, to sit in the witness chair and rub his cheeks with his knuckles as if he's wiping away tears, to ridicule a whining witness.

Controversial cases bring out the crazies and Winkler's is no different. "We got a lot of nasty stuff at first, but nothing threatening till we got [Winkler] out on bond," says Farese. "Then I got a death threat, a pretty bad one, that the FBI is investigating. It comes with the territory -- that's what my father always said."

In addition to arranging bail for Winkler, her attorneys have filed two suppression motions, including one involving the crime scene. Says Farese: "Under certain circumstances you'd have to have a search warrant. [Investigators] never got one."

Looking ahead to the Winkler trial, Farese anticipates tense moments. "It can wear you out, your head starts hurting, the next thing you know you're a nervous wreck," he says, referring to the concentration a trial requires. But he believes he and Ballin will handle the prosecution.

"I'm not afraid that Leslie is going to step on a landmine during cross examination. I call it the BB-off-the-tank effect. If somebody hits me between the eyes with an answer I don't want, I don't react at all; I just move on. I know Leslie can take those answers in stride, while I sit back, be an observer, or concentrate on my next witness. I have all the confidence in the world in him. Even if I wonder where he's going, I know it will eventually be where we both want to go -- he's just taking a different route."

Until that October day when Mary Winkler is escorted into the McNairy County courtroom, Farese, 57, who is married and has two grown children and one teenager, will take time out to enjoy his hobby. "I used to play a lot of tournament-style tennis, but I've had so many surgeries. Now I'm into swimming. And grandchildren. They're my real hobby." 

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