The Great Defender
Mary Winkler's gunshot blast sent shock waves through the nation. Meet a Memphis attorney who'll stand up for her in court.
He loves songs from The Music Man, Cats, and other Broadway shows and sometimes croons them at the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne. He's got no time for movies --"can't sit for two hours, I get ants in my pants" -- but he'll watch such TV comics as Larry David or Chevy Chase. He doesn't smoke, quit drinking three years ago, stopped running marathons when his knees gave out, and says he's more in love with his wife than he's ever been. He adores his three kids, hates dishonesty, and says a perfect day includes golf, tennis, Ruth's Chris Steak House, and a little more than his usual five hours' sleep.
He's criminal defense attorney Leslie Ballin, and if you've landed yourself in deep doo-doo, he's the man to call. For 29 years the 54-year-old native Memphian, alongside his father Marvin Ballin, has worked the less-savory side of the justice system, defending pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and drunk drivers, rapists and murderers. Some of Ballin's cases make the evening news and Commercial Appeal headlines -- but few have drawn attention beyond the local sphere.
Until now. Or more specifically, until March 22, 2006, when a 32-year-old preacher's wife in Selmer, Tennessee, shot her husband in the back as he lay in bed, then drove to the Gulf Coast with the couple's three daughters. Since fellow attorney Steve Farese recruited Ballin to work with him on the first-degree-murder case of Mary Winkler, the two have been thrust into the national limelight, interviewed by everyone from Court TV's Catherine Crier and Nancy Grace to CNN's Larry King and Anderson Cooper. People magazine has covered the story in depth and Glamour will run an article this fall.
With the trial scheduled to start October 30th and media frenzy shifting to high gear, the dark-haired, diminutive defendant -- possibly the unlikeliest candidate to wear shackles and orange prison garb -- will have her day in court. Reporters will pepper her attorneys with questions, while a public, riveted for months by the murder, will hear and rehash every word of the trial.
Till then, Ballin gives a few hints of what's to come: "Things didn't start just that morning. They evolved over the course of her 10-year marriage. She protected her husband in life and to some extent after his death and was apprehensive at first about telling her story. 'Blame it on me, make me the bad person' -- that was initially what she conveyed. But we have an articulate client, and now she's of the frame of mind to tell exactly what brought her to March 22nd."
And just what brought Ballin to this stage in his life? From handling such tedious tasks as real estate closings back in the '70s, to being interviewed on national news about a woman who allegedly shattered her husband's spine with a shotgun blast and left him to die on their bedroom floor?
Kicking back in his spacious downtown office, a foot propped on his desk, pink-striped tie loosened, one hand tugging at his rumpled, shaggy hair, Ballin recalls some cases that helped pave the way to his current status, and describes himself as a cog in the system to ensure justice is done. "Some folks, my wife included, don't understand how I can help some of these 'terrible criminals.'" says Ballin. "But no crime is too gruesome for me to take. If I cower away and say, 'I won't handle that,' then I'm not doing my job. Even [mass murderer] John Wayne Gacy was entitled to representation. We take rights away from people like him, and you're next."
"My office was a closet . . ."
Ballin grew up on the tree-lined streets of Idlewild in Midtown, attending Vollentine Elementary and Snowden Jr. High. For awhile his parents owned a dry-goods store in South Memphis "selling suits and shoes, needles and thread, a little bit of everything," says Ballin, who remembers sweeping the floors there as a small boy. Later, the family moved to East Memphis and in 1970 Ballin graduated from White Station High and went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. After receiving a degree in business -- while also playing sports, working in local politics, selling ladies' shoes, renting tuxedoes, and waiting tables -- he returned home with no clear idea what he wanted to do.
By then his father had sold the dry-goods business, earned a degree from the old Southern Law School downtown, and was handling criminal cases, "representing streetwalkers and doing well for them," says Ballin, who has a vivid memory of a pimp showing up late one night on the family's doorstep. "My father was in our little entry hall meeting an African-American gentleman who fit the description you'd associate with the word pimp -- wide-brimmed hat, beaver-skin coat, gold chains, multicolor high-heeled shoes." Young Ballin tucked a .22 pistol in his robe, stuck his head in the hallway, and asked if everything was all right. Everything was, and that experience -- colorful, amusing, tinged with enough danger to be titillating, and one of many he heard about or witnessed as a youth -- perhaps nudged Ballin to enter the University of Memphis law school, graduate in 1977, and ultimately join his father's business.
"At that time, Dad was with the firm Thomas, Halliburton, Ballin, and Fortas," recalls the son. "My office was a closet with a makeshift desk. I did it all -- fender-benders, libel, and slander. What I hated most was at 5:30 or 6 p.m., somebody from the real estate department would hand me a file and tell me I had to handle a closing in 30 minutes . . . and inevitably there'd be a problem with the paperwork."
"I'm a 201 Poplar attorney and always will be."
In 1979 Ballin and Ballin struck out on their own, certain they were "gonna go broke." Instead, the firm that's now called Ballin, Ballin, & Fishman has grown to include six lawyers, including Leslie Ballin's boyhood friend Randy Fishman, and his 27-year-old son Blake, and a workload that for Ballin alone has ballooned from three or four clients a day back in 1980, to as many as 30 now.
On a mild September morning, between 8 and 9 a.m., about 15 clients show up in Ballin's 12th-floor office at 200 Jefferson -- twentysomething white women, young and middle-aged black men, most of them polite, respectful, and neatly dressed. Occasionally pausing to confer with colleagues or snatch up a frequently buzzing phone, Ballin meets with clients one at a time, looks each in the eye, tells them where their case will be heard and what they might expect. To one -- a man who missed court the previous Friday claiming his flight from Nashville had been delayed -- Ballin shows a slight edge. "You said you got hung up at the airport. Where's your boarding pass?" he asks. The fiftyish man hesitates, tries to stare Ballin down, loses that battle, and finally says, "I was driving."
"Don't bullshit me again," his attorney retorts, and sets another date.
Later, at 201 Poplar, after navigating the line of people outside, Ballin moves from one court division to the next, "sort of like a doctor heading from one examining room to another." He dispatches some cases, negotiates others, with a veteran's aplomb and a comic touch. One, a fender-bender, involves two young women stopped by police at a local park in a state of "partial undress." Ballin explains that a reckless driving charge will stick, but other charges will likely be dropped if the women will sign an agreement. They smile when he tells them, "Sign it 'Wild Child Number One' and 'Wild Child Number Two.'"
He greets former clients -- "Hey, Mr. Ballin, how's it goin', man!" -- chats with fellow lawyers, complains once about a judge who recesses court without hearing his case, and is stopped by a TV news reporter wanting his opinion about a surprising not-guilty plea entered by a player in the Tennessee Waltz scandal.
Though it's a world he clearly loves, some aspects he despises, especially the "no pleas" arrangement set up a decade ago by the district attorney's office on cases of first- and second-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and some major drug offenses. "A lot of my clients don't want to dispose of their case on a no-plea arrangement so it's set for trial, then continued, rolled over, and that can drag on forever," says Ballin, whose firm opens some 150 new cases each month. "In a perfect world we'd close all those every year, but you ask for a trial date now [September] you're getting March or April. I don't think it should be like that. Any type of general policy that's not bendable is not good."
Despite what he considers no-plea aggravations, Ballin says, "I'm a "201 Poplar lawyer and always will be." He insists the Winkler case won't change that: "I'm concerned that people will think I only handle the big stuff. That's not so. Anybody who needs an attorney, I'm here to defend them."
"Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll . . ."
That said, the number of Ballin's high-profile cases has grown in recent years (Read about them). By far the most lurid involved FedEx pilot Michael Mullins, who in 1991 was charged with killing his wife Holly Mullins, also a FedEx pilot, shortly before their divorce hearing. Ballin recalls the case as "intense, exciting, full of you name it, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll. If courtrooms had been covered by the media then as they are now, people hungry for juicy stories would be eating it up."
Prosecutors claimed Mullins beat his wife to death on their East Memphis doorstep on August 30, 1991; her body was found a day later in her burned van in DeSoto County. While the case made headlines for weeks, it also cemented a relationship between Ballin and Steve Farese. "That's the first time we had worked together," says Ballin. "Because the body was found in Mississippi, I needed Mississippi counsel in line and that's where Steve came in."
The prosecution's case turned on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of one Carol Pinkerton -- a recovering alcoholic and drug user, Mullins' former lover, and ex-nanny to his children. She claimed Mullins told her that he killed his 36-year-old estranged wife and that she helped him dispose of the body. Two years later she went to police and turned Mullins in, out of fear for her life.
The defense team painted a different picture; they argued that Pinkerton murdered the victim in a jealous rage and told police that Mullins did it because he wouldn't agree to marry her. Among the many witnesses attacking Pinkerton's character and credibility was Thomas Dzieran, a member of the U.S. Navy SEAL team. "[Pinkerton] said she wished Holly Mullins was dead and that she would even pay for someone to kill her," Dzieran testified. "She is a very strange person." Backing that up was a professional counselor who said Pinkerton was full of "bizarre" stories and "not always in touch with reality." Another witness said that Pinkerton claimed to get letters and phone messages from the deceased and that "[Carol] was afraid that I was the ghost of Holly coming back to haunt her."
Perhaps their strongest witness was Mullins' 15-year-old son by a former marriage, who described an argument between Pinkerton and Holly Mullins at his father's home on the night of his stepmother's death. The women went their separate ways, but Pinkerton returned later in tears. "Her mascara was running, her clothes [and hair were] messed up," said the boy. "I've never seen her that upset."
After a seven-hour cross-examination of Pinkerton during which she wept, rambled, and wouldn't answer direct questions, Farese told the jury in his closing statements, "This woman is a liar. She is a cold-blooded, vicious, manipulating witch. She wants you to be her hit man and here's her target [Mullins]."
Looking back, Ballin says he'll never forget an experience in the men's room after Pinkerton left the stand. Through the mirror over the sink, the prosecutor made eye contact with Ballin and Farese, shook his head, and said, "I knew she was going to be bad but I didn't know she'd be that bad." Michael Mullins was acquitted in March 1994; he now owns a local skydiving company. Carol Pinkerton was granted immunity by the state for her testimony. The case remains unsolved.
"The Memphis Dream Team"?
During the past 10 years, Ballin and Farese have handled perhaps a dozen murder trials together. "If a case goes south," laughs Ballin, "we can always point to the other and say, it was his fault." On a more serious note he adds, "If a death penalty is involved, it's better to have two people defending the accused."
Since Mary Winkler's story hit the news, Ballin and Farese have made the rounds of network and cable TV shows; some interviewers have dubbed them the "Memphis Dream Team" -- a moniker Ballin shrugs off as undeserved: "We're just trying to do our job." Modest as that may sound, he doesn't mind the national publicity and requires no coaching from image consultants to prepare him for a live show or a satellite interview. Often, however, they require one adjustment: "Steve is a lot taller than me -- 6-3 to my 5-10," smiles Ballin, "so they build my seat up so we look the same height."
Among the reporters he likes is Greta von Susteren of Fox News: "I bet she spent 30 minutes on the phone just talking. She's a nice person." On the other hand, there's Court TV's Nancy Grace. "The questions she should be asking the lawyers, she asks people without legal training. We've told the producer we'd do her show only with an open mic, so we can respond, but she won't allow it."
"I don't have any trouble sleeping at night."
No matter what kind of case Ballin takes -- and he says it's unethical for an attorney to solicit one -- he approaches it in a similar manner. He tells his client, "Don't tell me your side of this now. Let me investigate it, let me tell you what I can find that they have on you. Then you can tell me what happened."
Do the two stories often match? "Many times they don't," he replies. "I can't assume a client isn't telling me the truth, but I'm not surprised when I find out they're not." And they can only push the truth so far. "I won't participate in anybody's defense who tells me, 'This is what happened but I'm not gonna testify to that.'"
His firm tries some 10 cases a year -- the vast majority of them are settled without a trial -- and wins most of them. Ballin adds matter-of-factly, "You don't try them unless you're pretty sure you can win." He never plans his closing arguments, mentally checks off points in his head, and won't "talk down" to jurors. He enjoys helping those who need him and smiles at a comment made by a former bailiff: "If you're in a mess, call Les."
Naturally, Ballin often defends guilty people. "The question isn't 'What happened?'" he says. "The question is 'Can the government prove what happened beyond a reasonable doubt?' You may call that semantics. And it is. But I refer you back to people like me being the reason that people like you can't be plucked out of your homes by Gestapo-like forces. We make sure that before the government locks our citizens away, it has the proof of their crime. As long as I do my job honorably, truthfully, and ethically, I don't have any trouble sleeping at night."
At least not often. One case bothered him early in his career, one that involved a 16-year-old boy accused of killing his father and little sister. "I remember seeing the photographs," says Ballin. "It wasn't the blood and guts so much as the nonsensical killing of the girl. Emotionally it bothered me but it didn't hurt my objectiveness as a defense lawyer."
"Divine intervention . . ."
Although Ballin wins more cases than he loses, one loss stands out. "Middle to late '80s," he recalls. "I have a client named Donnie accused of robbing a convenience store using a knife. He's in the military and lives in married housing, but his wife's attending school in Jackson so he's effectively alone. He goes in to buy a six-pack of beer and the clerk gets all nervous while they're conducting the transaction. Thinks he's the guy who robbed the store a week earlier. Donnie leaves and the clerk gets a license plate number from Donnie's car. Police trace it. Donnie has no record so there's no photograph to show to witnesses. So police create a photo display by going to the navy base and taking multiple pictures of like-looking individuals. They show the photo spread to the clerk. Clerk identifies Donnie. Another robbery occurs a day or so later. That victim fingers Donnie too. Donnie says he was home asleep. Jury deliberates and convicts him, takes him into custody."
Ballin and his wife went to a concert that night --"I think it was the Rolling Stones," he says -- but they left early and the defense attorney spent a night in tears. "I know Donnie's family did too," he adds.
"The next morning prosecutor Jim Wax calls me and says he's gotta talk to me about Donnie. He'd gotten a call at home the night before from the victim. She wanted to know what went wrong at the trial and the prosecutor said, 'Nothing, we convicted the defendant and they took him into custody.' She said, 'That's impossible, he just left here.'"
With that information, the state set aside the verdict against Donnie, and Ballin credits "divine intervention" for the loss that became a win. "How many times does the real perpetrator cross paths again with one of his victims and the victim call the prosecutor?" he asks. "You don't get many like that."
"'We're doing it pro bono . . . '"
Nor does an attorney get many cases like Mary Winkler's. Ballin, who generally charges a first-degree murder defendant about $100,000, says he and Farese are handling the case for free. Recalling the morning Farese called him, Ballin says, "It's about 7:30 and I'm on my way to court, got a murder trial set that day. Steve is on the phone and says, 'You wanna go to Selmer with me this afternoon?' I know at once who he was referring to and I say, 'How much fee are we talking about, Steve?' He says, 'Nothing. Pro bono.' Well, I'm thinking something's wrong with my reception, but he says it again, Says, 'We're doing it pro bono. Because that's the right thing to do.'"
Both attorneys seem highly protective of their defendant, who is out on $750,000 bond and working for friends in McMinnville, Tennessee. Although Ballin says they treat her no differently from other clients, Winkler is different: "She has no record, yet she's starting out with the most serious of charges. She's mild, meek, kind of sheepish. Mainly we protect her from the media, and her family and friends who ask the same questions that aren't appropriate for us to answer until the trial."
As that event approaches, Ballin will likely continue his routine of rising at 5 a.m., letting out the family dogs, and reading the newspaper. Then he may head to the Racquet Club to lift weights or work out on the elliptical machine, before arriving at his office at 8 a.m. and starting his 12-hour work day.
When stress builds up, as it surely will, he'll seek solace from Renelle, his wife of nearly 30 years and "the best listener and best friend anybody could have," says Ballin. "She keeps me going; she's the reason for my sanity."
And on October 30th, will he and Farese be prepped for the prosecution, as the cameras' hot lights are aimed their way? "I'll say this, we're gonna try to be ready," he responds. "In our professional opinion this is definitely not first-degree murder. And it may not be a crime."
What of the figure at the center of this tragedy, the mother, former teacher, and preacher's wife turned murder defendant? Will she take the stand? Says Ballin: "That decision will be made at the appropriate time. We're keeping our options open."