Jurors in Leon County, Florida are deliberating the fate of Denise Williams. Did she play a role in the 2000 murder of her first husband Jerry Michael Williams? Her former lover Brian Winchester took responsibility as the gunman, and implicated her as a co-conspirator, but only when he reached an immunity agreement with prosecutors. Much of this case rests largely on his perceived credibility.
Williams is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and accessory after the fact in first-degree murder.
This story gets convoluted, so let’s go over the general timeline before reviewing Friday’s closing arguments.
Jerry Michael Williams, who went by the name “Mike,” disappeared while on a hunting trip to Lake Seminole, northwest of Tallahassee, on December 16, 2000. A search effort failed to turn up his body. Some thought he might have been eaten by alligators. Testimony established that loved ones held a memorial service in February 2001.
In the meantime, Denise collected $1.75 million from three life insurance policies on her missing husband. Winchester, a financial planner and their long-time friend, sold two of those policies. He and his first wife Katherine Thomas divorced in 2003, and he went onto marry the defendant in 2005. That union eventually fell apart. She separated from him in 2012 and filed for divorce in 2015. Then in 2016, Winchester kidnapped her at gunpoint. He pleaded no contest in 2017, and reached the aforementioned immunity agreement. Winchester is serving a 20-year prison sentence, and after that, will spend 15 years on probation for the kidnapping, but not the murder.
BREAKING: #DeniseWilliams – There will be no lesser included charges to the 1st degree murder. That means guilty of 1st degree or not guilty. Neither side requested lesser includes. IE: 2nd degree murder, manslaughter pic.twitter.com/55jSci1cRO
— Cathy Russon (@cathyrusson) December 13, 2018
On the stand, Winchester claimed that he had had an affair with Denise Williams starting in 1997. He alleged that they eventually settled on killing Mike. The defendant didn’t want a divorce because of her “upbringing” and “pride,” he testified. Winchester said that he lured Mike out to Lake Seminole in the early morning of December 16, 2000. The plan was to stage an accidental drowning, but when Winchester pushed the victim off the boat, Mike managed to hold onto to a stump, according to testimony. Winchester then shot his long-time friend in the face, buried the body near Carr Lake (north of Tallahassee), and played along with search efforts.
There’s a problem with this story, however. It’s both prosecutors’ biggest asset, and possibly, their Achilles heel. During closing arguments, defense lawyer Ethan Way construed this account as retaliation against the defendant for the kidnapping case. He hit on a theme of Winchester being a planner and a salesman, as well as an admitted killer and liar. Brian’s story about the murder, and Denise’s alleged role was just a way to get “revenge” against her, get out of a life sentence for the kidnapping, and get away with murder.
“If you take Brian Winchester out of the things that have been shown to you, you have nothing,” he said.
Assistant State Attorney Jon S. Fuchs insisted that the case is more than just about Winchester. Other evidence supported Denise’s involvement in the murder, he said.
He pointed to testimony from Thomas. She claimed that a week after Winchester’s arrest for kidnapping in August 2016, Denise told her to relay a message to Winchester.
“She wanted me to tell [Winchester’s father] Marcus to tell Brian that she wasn’t talking,” Katherine said. Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators had her record a conversation in which she confronted Denise about the statement in February 2018. The defendant apparently acknowledged actually saying it.
On Friday, Fuchs said Williams’ words only made sense if the 2016 statement was in reference to a pact with Winchester not to discuss Mike’s murder with anyone else. In his rebuttal argument, he said that she didn’t even make a denial when Thomas accused her of the murder. Instead, she asked if Marcus was involved.
Defense attorney Way attacked Thomas’ performance regarding her testimony from Thursday morning.
“She’s confused, and she doesn’t really know what that was about,” he said. The lawyer pointed out that investigators scripted Thomas’ words in the recording. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had zeroed-in on Denise at this point because “it’s always the spouse” in cases of murder, he said sarcastically. Investigators wanted to cover their bad deal with Winchester, he argued.
Fuchs doubled-down on the Thomas recording in his rebuttal, and defended the decision to reach an immunity agreement with Winchester so the case could be solved.
“Was it a good decision?” he said. “I don’t know. Time will tell. That is a cross I must bear.”
Note: This article has been reworked to reflect closing arguments.
[Mugshot via Leon County]