Murderous Spouses, Media Frenzies and a Client Named Snake
Defense lawyer Leslie Ballin has seen it all
Published in 2008 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 10, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Leslie Ballin flips open his cell phone and scrolls to a photo of three little girls at a family gathering. The caption beneath it reads: Having fun with cousins. “She sent it to me this weekend,” he says.
“She” is Mary Winkler, the petite, dark-haired client whose murder case catapulted Ballin into the national spotlight in 2006. Thanks to Ballin, a partner with Memphis’ Ballin, Ballin & Fishman, and his colleague Steve Farese, Winkler is a free woman in spite of her admission that she killed her preacher husband after suffering years of abuse. She regained custody of her daughters in August.
During the past 30 years, Ballin has handled approximately 150 homicide cases, defending some of Tennessee’s most notorious criminals. Still, he’s anything but flashy. A large framed magazine article about him sits on the carpet, facing the wall, in his slightly disheveled 12th-floor downtown office. “My wife did that and I think it’s too showy,” he says, running his fingers through his already-tousled hair. “It’s not me. It’s just not my style.”
Ballin grew up in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood, one of the oldest in Memphis. Three afternoons a week, as soon as the final bell rang at his grammar school, he walked across the street to the synagogue to study Hebrew and Jewish religion. He also helped out at his father Marvin’s dry goods store by sweeping the floors. A family friend and land developer warned Marvin that “the malls were coming and the days of the mom and pop store on the corner were numbered and he’d better do something else,” Ballin says. “So he went to night law school and phased out his dry goods business and went to work as a lawyer.” The memory of his father sitting on the floor in the hallway outside his son’s bedroom late at night, studying for law school, is still a vivid one for Ballin.
A hard worker who might have pursued an advertising career “writing jingles” if he hadn’t become a lawyer, Ballin waited tables, rented out tuxedoes, delivered newspapers, worked at a delicatessen and sold suits at a clothing store while playing sports and earning his business degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Even then, his “innate desire to do right” compelled him to defend the underdog. “I remember one time on the football field, some guy was taking advantage of a smaller kid on my team, and after the play was over, I just went over and punched him through the [helmet] and broke his nose,” he says. “Of course I suffered for it.”
Law school followed, and, at age 25, he joined his father at Thomas, Halliburton, Ballin & Fortas, which in 1977 was considered a large firm with 15 attorneys. Ballin’s first office was a closet with “a little bitty desk,” a particular challenge given his claustrophobia. “The door was always open,” he says, laughing. For two years, he paid his dues handling house closings and fender-bender cases before he and his dad struck out on their own in 1979.
Ballin’s first jury trial involved an alleged gas station burglary and a client named Snake. “Snake’s record was so bad that if he had gotten convicted his sentence would have been life. I was so nervous I could hardly catch my breath. I can remember Snake telling me, ‘Mr. Ballin, calm down, it’s gonna be all right. Whatever’s gonna be is gonna be,'” he says, mimicking the defendant’s raspy, Mob-style voice. “And lo and behold, it was OK. He was acquitted.”
In 1991, when FedEx pilot Michael Mullins allegedly murdered his wife shortly before the couple’s divorce hearing, Ballin teamed up with Farese for the first time. (Because the body was found in Mississippi, Ballin called Farese, who practices there. The case, however, was ultimately tried in Memphis.) The defense team argued that Mullins’ ex-lover killed the victim in a jealous rage.
“During the early motion period of the trial I was wondering exactly where [Ballin] was going and it ended up he was going the same place I would have gone, except he went by a different route,” says Farese. “I could tell he had an excellent grasp of the law. He had a good presentation, a good demeanor, very calm, very direct. … He had an almost matter-of-fact way about getting to the issues during cross-examination. The way he crafts his questions, the only thing you can do is agree with them.”
The trial lasted eight days and the jury deliberated for less than an hour. The verdict: not guilty. “If Court TV would have been available then, that would have been the trial of the century,” says Ballin. “It had sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, everything that sells news. That was a wild, wild case.”
Through the years Ballin has earned a reputation as a confident, respectful litigator who can be “pretty contentious when the time calls for it.” For the most part, he’s learned how to hold his emotions in check—although, he admits, the double homicide case in which he represented a 16-year-old boy who shot his father and hanged his younger sister with dog chains to keep her from telling, “got to me.” He’s also earned the trust of his peers. It’s why Farese chose him as co-counsel on the Winkler case.
On the night of March 22, 2006, Ballin and his wife Renelle were watching the news when they learned that police had found the body of Matthew Winkler, a 31-year-old preacher from Selmer, the west Tennessee town of Walking Tall fame. He was shot in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun. An AMBER Alert was put out for Winkler’s missing wife, Mary, 32, and their three daughters.
“Renelle turned to me and said, ‘Oh, that poor lady. I hope she’s OK,'” Ballin recalls. “And I turned to her and said, ‘OK? You’re concerned about her? I bet she’s the one who did it.'”
Farese called him at 7:15 a.m. the following Monday. Police had arrested Winkler; prosecutors claimed she committed the crime to cover up a check-kiting scheme that would have destroyed the family’s finances. Farese talked Ballin into joining him on the case pro bono, and the two lawyers drove to Selmer, with a skeptical Ballin grumbling throughout the 90-mile trip. “This is a waste of our time,” he complained to Farese. “This is a spouse who’s accused of killing her husband. What’s so special about that? We [already] try three or four of these a year.”
“No, no, this is different. And it’s gonna be big,” Farese told him. “Just wait.”
As they crested the hill near the McNairy County Courthouse, the road dropped, revealing a swarm of satellite trucks from Court TV, CNN and other national networks. And Ballin changed his mind. “I realized this was going to be different,” he says.
Moments later, he met Winkler and was struck by her “mousy” demeanor. “I’m used to some rough, tough guys with tattoos, missing half their teeth, with a rap sheet a mile long,” he says. “This was a different kind of lady. She was living inside a shell.”
At trial, Ballin and Farese painted a picture of a woman who had endured a decade of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Winkler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and, last June, was sentenced to 210 days of confinement, including the time she’d already spent in jail. She served one more week behind bars before being transferred to a mental health facility.
As for the media frenzy, Ballin says, “I was accustomed to being in the media on a local level, so it didn’t bother me.” He tries not to let the attention go to his head. “I don’t consider myself special in any way, shape or form,” he says. “I detest people who walk around with a holier-than-thou attitude.”
Ballin, in fact, has a zany sense of humor. He once wore a ballerina costume to a Halloween party and, on his 50th birthday, donned a king’s crown to court. “If we don’t laugh about some of what we do, it’ll get you depressed,” he says. “We’ve got to have a sense of humor about this stuff. Otherwise, we’d be crying all the time.”
Like the Billy Flynn character in Chicago, says Ballin (who listens to Broadway tunes in his car), when you’re in court, “You’ve got to be light on your feet and give ’em the old soft shoe and don’t let anything smack you between the eyes.” When it comes to closing arguments, his motto is “No notes.” Instead, he crafts a mental outline of his summation. “Notes screw me up,” he says.
Ballin’s rebellious nature surfaces now and then; he once briefly went to jail after a judge demanded that he pay a $50 fine or be locked up for contempt. “It takes a lot to get me upset, but when I do, you know it. I act like a juvenile. I yell and act like a baby, but that so very rarely happens—at my age, anyway.
“If I hadn’t become a lawyer,” he adds, “I probably would have been on the other side of the law. I’ve got a wild streak in me.”
Ballin’s son Blake, 29, joined the firm four years ago. Theirs is a close-knit family. “There is no discord here,” Ballin says of the six-member firm. “We get along in trial and we get along from the moment we get together in the morning until the end of the day.” That doesn’t stop the Ballins from engaging in a little friendly competition, though.
Take, for example, today’s sign-in sheet. “Oh, this’ll kill Marvin,” Ballin says, pointing to the list of 22 clients who have visited him so far today. “Plus, there were probably a good six or eight people that were in custody that were not able to come to the office.” Marvin, on the other hand, has seen six. Blake has met with 10. “That’s an average day,” Ballin says of his workload.
“I can’t do one thing at a time.”