Closing arguments are expected Friday morning in the trial of Denise Williams. Jurors in Leon County, Florida must decide if she plotted the 2000 murder of her husband Jerry Michael Williams, who went by the name “Mike.”
Much of the prosecution’s case rests on the words of Brian Winchester, the defendant’s alleged co-conspirator and former lover. As part of a 2017 immunity agreement, he took responsibility as the gunman. He testified that he lured Mike out to Lake Seminole in the early morning of December 16, 2000. The original plan was to stage this as an accidental drowning, but things went awry. The victim managed to hold onto a stump in the water, Winchester claimed. The killer confessed to then pulling out a shotgun and shooting his victim in the face.
The defense is geared to attack Brian’s credibility. He signed the immunity agreement after his 2016 arrest for kidnapping Denise. He’s serving a 20-year sentence after pleading no contest. Williams’s attorney Philip Padvano suggested in opening statements on Tuesday that there is a “sense of revenge” in Winchester because Denise threw him under the bus when it came to the kidnapping.
This is a pretty convoluted case, so let’s start with the top, and get you oriented for Friday’s closing arguments.
December 16, 2000: Mike went missing. Authorities can’t figure out what happened. They fail to turn up his body when searching Lake Seminole. Some think he might have been eaten by an alligator. Loved ones hold a memorial service in February 2001, and he is presumed dead. The victim’s mother Cheryl Williams doesn’t believe it, however. She goes on a crusade to bring attention to her son’s disappearance, and find out what happened.
Denise, meanwhile, collected $1.75 million on three insurance policies covering her husband’s life. Guess who sold two of those: Winchester, a financial planner.
Brian said that he had had an affair with the defendant since 1997. He, his first wife Katherine Thomas, the defendant, and Mike all went to the same high school, and were friends for years. Obviously, this alleged affair put a strain on his marriage.
Katherine, who has since remarried, testified on the stand that she found movie tickets and a receipt for a necklace, which suggested that Brian had been having an affair with Denise. Under cross-examination, she acknowledged never catching them in the act.
In any case, she separated from Winchester in 2001, and divorced in 2003. Brian would go onto marry Denise in 2005.
Mike’s mother Cheryl and brother Nick Williams accused Denise Williams of some suspicious behavior in the years shortly after Mike’s disappearance. They testified that in 2001 and 2005, she demanded they stop pushing for an investigation into what happened. When they didn’t, she withheld her daughter Anslee, now 19, from visiting them.
Under cross-examination, Williams’ defense recast their clients behavior as reasonable under the circumstances. Their questioning suggested she was a single mother trying to raise a daughter alone.
“If Denise is innocent, and she thought you were accusing her of doing something to her son, do you think it be would logical for her to be upset with you?” defense lawyer Philip Padovano asked Cheryl on the stand.
Williams’ marriage to Winchester broke down in 2012. They separated, but Winchester refused to let go, according to testimony. This led to the aforementioned kidnapping case. In 2016, he climbed into the back of her vehicle, sat inside for five hours, used a spray bottle to obscure the windows, and surprised her when she entered. He was armed. Denise managed to calm him down, and he let her go.
Assistant State Attorney Jon S. Fuchs said in opening statements that Winchester was trying to “save” the marriage. Padovano said that Winchester brought along a tarp and two cans of bleach.
During cross-examination with defense lawyer Ethan Way, Winchester admitted having a gun, but downplayed its presence. He said he only pulled it out later in the incident.
Katherine Thomas testified that she had restarted her friendship with Denise by this time. She claimed that a week after Winchester’s arrest for kidnapping, Williams asked her to relay a message to him.
“She wanted me to tell [Winchester’s father] Marcus to tell Brian that she wasn’t talking,” Katherine said. She said she contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about it, and they had her record a February 2018 conversation in which Denise acknowledged making the statement.
Prosecutors suggest this referenced the alleged murder plot.
“Again, why make that statement unless her and Brian Winchester were involved in this all along?” Fuchs said in opening statements.
Williams faces charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and accessory after the fact in first-degree murder.
[Screengrab via Law&Crime Network]
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