COLUMBIA — A South Carolina judge has overturned a death sentence for a man convicted of killing his estranged wife while awaiting trial on charges that he had raped and kidnapped her.
Prosecutors said Monday that a judge had opted to sentence Louis Winkler, 52, to life in prison, citing errors made by his defense attorneys at trial. State prison officials said Winkler was still on
death row, and it wasn’t immediately clear when he would be moved to a different cell.
Winkler was sentenced in 2008 after he was convicted of murder and first-degree burglary in the death of his wife, Rebekah Grainger Winkler, in her Little River apartment.
Winkler was under house arrest at the time of the 2006 shooting. A judge released him on bond, and Winkler was allowed to leave his home for several hours a day.
While out on bond, prosecutors said, he kicked in the door of his wife’s home and shot her in the face. He hid in the woods for two
weeks before he was arrested.
The state Supreme Court upheld Winkler’s death sentence in 2010. But in an 11-page ruling dated Wednesday, Judge Ben Culbertson – who presided over a four-day post-conviction relief trial this summer – said Winkler’s original attorneys made mistakes during the trial.
During those proceedings, Culbertson wrote, Winkler asked for new attorneys but was denied. When jurors deadlocked after 10 hours of deliberation, the judge told them they must reach a
unanimous decision but never explained to them how things would be handled if they remained at a standstill.
Culbertson denied several of Winkler’s arguments, including the notion that the original judge was wrong not to let Winkler represent himself at trial.
Culbertson did agree with Winkler that his original attorneys were wrong not to object when the trial judge didn’t tell jurors what would happen if they remained deadlocked.
“The judge refused to answer the question both times, and Winkler’s criminal trial attorneys never objected to the judge’s refusal to answer the question,” Culbertson wrote. “Sentencing in capital murder cases is made by the jury and, therefore, the jury is entitled to know the law on sentencing.”
Solicitor Greg Hembree has asked state prosecutors to appeal Culbertson’s decision to the state Supreme Court, saying in a statement released Monday that the judge “goes past ruling on the law.”
Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office did not immediately comment on the request.