The defense opened its case in the murder trial of Todd Winkler on Wednesday, taking on the challenge of winning an acquittal or leniency for the former Air Force fighter pilot who has admitted he killed his wife and did so knowingly.
Defense lawyer David Weiner, who had delayed his opening trial statement until Wednesday, said there was much more to the story of Winkler fatally stabbing his wife, Rachel, 37, with a pair of scissors in their Cameron Park house on Feb. 27, 2012.
He painted a story of Winkler as a lifelong high achiever. He portrayed his journey from high school student body president in Iowa to a graduate of the Air Force Academy to a successful pharmaceutical industry executive. He described his client as doting on his children and lovingly providing for his family.
The defense lawyer also took on the victim, the mother of Winkler’s three children. He depicted Rachel Winkler, who married her husband in 2007, as a woman who had “a need for new things in her life,” who “required full-time attention” and was carrying on an extended extramarital affair.
The defense case, earlier revealed during cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, is that Rachel Winkler was a woman of strength and stamina, a workout enthusiast who could spend three hours on a treadmill and run multiple circles around Cameron Park Lake, pushing her young children in a jogging stroller.
Weiner had also depicted Rachel Winkler as furiously demanding a divorce from her husband and as attacking him with the scissors during an argument. He characterized Todd Winkler as emotionally fragile, as a man with past hospitalizations while with the Air Force in Japan and on business in Amsterdam. Weiner said his client killed Rachel Winkler during a psychotic episode amid physical exhaustion and the stress of the struggle.
But as the defense began presenting its witnesses Tuesday, it had to overcome Winkler’s own videotaped interviews with El Dorado County detectives.
Weiner was faced with his client’s admission that he had punched his wife before the encounter with the scissors and that at some point he broke away and then returned after putting on a motorcycle jacket. It was then that Winkler said that, during continuation of a “protracted struggle,” he plunged the scissors into his wife’s neck as she was saying they could work things out and was “pleading for her life.”
One of the defense witnesses Wednesday, Richard Johnson, a friend of Todd Winkler’s and a contractor who performed work at his house, portrayed Winkler as a dedicated father and attentive husband “who never had a cross word for his wife.” He recalled seeing Winkler on Feb. 26, the day before the killing, pushing small children in a double stroller.
“That particular day, as always, he was happy-go-lucky, glad to be out, to have the kids out, to be with his family,” Johnson said. His wife, Linda Johnson, testified that the Winklers were “the perfect family.”
The trial has also turned on the mystery of a fiery crash in Georgia that killed Winkler’s previous wife, Catherine, 32, in 1999 on what Weiner called a “treacherous, narrow, slippery and bumpy” forest road. Winkler, who collected nearly $1.2 million in insurance settlements after the accident, said his wife was rushing him to a hospital after an allergic reaction to an insect bite while camping.
The prosecution has raised questions about his account and his lack of notable injuries after claiming he was thrown from the vehicle.
On Wednesday, Weiner summoned Delta Air Lines pilot Mark Heinold, a former Air Force colleague, to testify that Winkler had a history of severe allergic reactions to insect bites – including an incident while boating in Texas when his friend became incoherent and nearly passed out.
While Weiner said in his opening statement that Winkler retired from the Air Force with a partial disability, Heinold noted that he was impressed on a visit in 1999 at the successful life Todd Winkler had built with Catherine Winkler in Lake Lanier, Ga., after problems during his military service.
“I know he had some difficulties in the Air Force and lost his wings and was grounded” from flying, Heinold said. “I thought, wow, he has really turned it around after being grounded. It was a very nice home on the lake, very well kept, the decor was very nice.”
In Cameron Park, Todd and Rachel Winkler and their children lived in an upscale community with an airplane hangar and runway access to the Cameron Airpark, where Rachel worked as the airport manager.
While Weiner said Wednesday that Todd Winkler had “landed a very nice job with Abbott Laboratories, earning high revenue with a Fortune 500 company,” he took aim earlier in the trial at Rachel Winkler’s lover.
In cross-examination of James White, 46, of Rescue, a real estate appraiser and former handyman at the airpark, Weiner questioned White about trying to dissuade Rachel Winker from returning to work after she left her airpark job following the birth of her third child.
As White testified that he and Rachel Winkler were planning to get married after her planned divorce from Todd Winkler, Weiner questioned him on whether he was directing Rachel not to work so she could increase the amount of alimony and child support payments she could receive from Todd Winkler.
While the prosecution has portrayed Todd Winkler as a reckless spender who left his family under constant financial stress, the defense suggested that Rachel Winkler and White were angling for his money in the divorce settlement.
Weiner had White read text messages in court about Rachel’s financial worries and her concerns about providing for her children while affording her new life with White.
In the texts, White promised that he could pick up additional work. He also texted Rachel to assure her about income due from her husband. “Todd will have to support those babies,” he wrote her. “That will alleviate some pressure.”