Judge overturns Horry County man’s death sentence; solicitor appeals

A Circuit Court judge overturned an Horry County man’s death sentence for killing his wife, but prosecutors say they will appeal the decision because a jury ruled the man should be put to death in the crime.

Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Culbertson overturned Louis “Mick” Winkler’s death sentence in an order dated Aug. 15 and ordered the 52-year-old to serve life in prison, according to a news release from the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s office issued Monday.

Winkler was sentenced to death by an Horry County jury in February 2008 after he was found guilty of murder, first-degree burglary and aggravated assault in the shooting death of his estranged wife, Rebekah Grainger Winkler.

On March 6, 2006, the day of Rebekah Winkler’s death, Winkler was on home detention, after being charged with kidnapping and raping Rebekah Winkler. He was allowed to leave home between 4 and 6 p.m. every day. Rebekah Winkler was killed at 5:37 p.m.

Winkler is one of six men from Horry and Georgetown counties on death row.

Family members and attorneys in the case could not be reached Monday for comment.

The S.C. Supreme Court unanimously upheld Winkler’s convictions and death sentence, but in his most recent post-conviction relief appeal, Winkler’s attorneys said the trial judge improperly declined to answer a question posed by the jury, and that the attorney who represented Winkler during the trial should have objected.

Greg Hembree, 15th Circuit Solicitor, said that Culbertson agreed with Winkler’s attorney that the trial judge made a mistake and Culbertson concluded that had the jury been given the information requested they would not have imposed the death sentence.

“In his order Judge Culbertson goes past ruling on the law, and determines what the jury would have decided then assumes the authority to impose a life sentence on the defendant,” Hembree said in the release.

Hembree said he has appealed Culbertson’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“Louis M. Winkler Jr. is a monster that terrorizes and kills women and he deserves the death sentence that an Horry County jury imposed and that the Supreme Court affirmed. The Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor’s office will continue to seek justice for Rebecca Winkler no matter what obstacles we face,” Hembree said in the release.

Winkler was sentenced to death after an Horry County jury deliberated for more than 12 hours over two days Feb. 7-8, 2008.

Police said Winkler kicked in the door at his estranged wife’s home and shot her in the face at close range while her then 14-year-old son was in the room. Her son, Jonathan Grainger, testified during Winkler’s trial that he did not see the gunshot that killed his mom because Winkler had punched him in the face.

Winkler told police that Rebekah Winkler’s ex-husband, Roger Grainger, was the person who shot her, but Jonathan Grainger testified he was alone with his mother at the time of the shooting.

In his appeal, Winkler said that his trial attorneys were inept because they failed to object to Circuit Court Judge James Lockemy, who presided over the trial, refusing to answer a question from the jury about being deadlocked during their deliberations on his sentence.

“Had the jury’s question been answered by the judge, a reasonable probability exists that the jury would not have reached a unanimous verdict and the court would have imposed a sentence of life in prison. Therefore, the results of the proceedings would have been different,” Culbertson wrote in his order.

“Although overwhelming evidence of Winkler’s guilt exists in the case at hand, the ineffective assistance of counsel did not occur during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial. It occurred during the sentencing phase of the trial. Therefore, Winkler is entitled to post-conviction relief as to the sentence imposed in this case.”