TAMPA — Investigators agreed that Mary Hildreth Winston's death was a homicide.
Photographs taken of her shortly after she died in her Citrus Park home three years ago showed the 65-year-old in bed, her limbs frozen by an aggressive and untreated type of rheumatoid arthritis that left her unable to care for herself. The retired nurse was covered in bed sores, some so severe that her rib cage was partially exposed.
But her husband and three grown children, who cared for her until her death, saw the situation differently — this was how she wanted to die, they told a pair of horrified detectives.
On Wednesday, a judge appeared to side with the family's defense attorneys, who have argued for the last several years that Mary Winston's caretakers were obeying her wish to die at home, without any kind of medical intervention. Given the option of sentencing the four family members to as many as five years in prison, Hillsborough Senior Judge Susan Sexton chose a combination of house arrest and probation, an unusually light punishment that suggested flaws in the prosecution's case.
"I'm not going to give a prison sentence to any of these individuals," she told the court.
Roberta Flowers, a former prosecutor who co-directs Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Elder Law, said she was "stunned" prosecutors had charged the family with a crime.
"They obviously felt they had probable cause for the charge," she said. "And perhaps the judge felt punishment in this situation was not appropriate, that this was an unusual situation at best and that they didn't deserve to go to prison for what they did."
Prosecutors offered a muted response to the judge's ruling.
"Sentencing was up to the discretion of the court," said Hillsborough state attorney spokesman Mark Cox. "We respect the decision of the court."
Eight months after Mary Winston's death, the State Attorney's Office charged her husband, Osmond Winston Sr., 69, with aggravated manslaughter of an elderly or disabled person, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. Prosecutors also charged the couple's three adult children — Osmond "Ozzie" Winston Jr., 47, Hyacinth Winston, 45, and Belinda Winston, 41 — accusing the entire family of causing their wife and mother to die by neglecting what is typically a nonterminal disease.
In interviews with law enforcement, family members maintained that Mary Winston was insistent, even stubborn, that she not be taken to a hospital, where she might be discharged to a nursing home.
She was equally adamant that the family not call 911, or seek any other form of medical treatment. In lieu of prescription pain-killers, she took ibuprofen.
"She said she knows what hospitals are and she didn't want to go to the hospital," her youngest daughter, Belinda Winston, told detectives.
The case pivoted on medical and ethical questions familiar to anyone who followed the case of Terri Schiavo and her family's acrimonious battle over when life ends and what she would have wanted. But in the Winston case, it came down to this: Was Mary Winston able to decide how she wanted to die?
Prosecutors never disputed that Winston refused medical treatment while she was intellectually capable of making such a decision.
Still, they argued there was no concrete evidence, aside from the family's statements, that they were acting on her instructions. Nor could they prove that she was ever treated by a physician, as family members said. Further complicating matters, Winston left no will or other written documents stating her preferences.
Despite their certainty that this was a case of extreme neglect, at some point, prosecutors' resolve to take the case to trial diminished. A few months ago, they offered Mary Winston's husband and children open plea deals. In exchange for admitting to the charges against them, they could receive sentences ranging from probation to five years in prison. It would fall to the judge to decide.
The family rejected these offers until Wednesday, when Sexton, who has years of experience in elder law and founded the circuit's Elder Justice Center, advised the defense that if they chose to place their clients' fate in her hands, she would not send the family to prison. Stopping short of pleading guilty, the family agreed not to contest the state's charges, an arrangement prosecutors accepted.
Sexton sentenced Osmond Winston Sr. and Belinda Winston, the two family members most responsible for Mary Winston's care, to one year of house arrest, followed by several years of probation. Hyacinth Winston and Osmond Winston Jr., neither of whom lived at home with their mother or cared for her daily, received less severe punishments of probation.
"I've never had a probationary sentence in a homicide case before," said the defense attorney for Belinda Winston, Nicholas Matassini, who appeared astonished by his client's good fortune. "That is sort of reflective of the unique set of circumstances in this case."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.