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Out of Prison, Into a New Life : Cancer Proves Ironic Boon for Woman

October 18, 1987|LEANNE WAXMAN | Associated Press

BULLS GAP, Tenn. — Shooting her husband to death was "a terrible thing," Kathryn England Winstead admits, and she thought cancer was her punishment.

Instead, the disease won her clemency from a life sentence, and now, with prison and cancer behind her and with a new marriage just starting, she says she has a second chance in life.

Seated at a table in the truck stop where she works, Kathryn Winstead talked of the future and recalled the ordeal that led her to kill Frank England five years ago.

"I wanted him dead. But more than dead, I wanted him gone," she said. "What I did was a terrible thing, but God still can make it work."

She and Marshall Winstead married June 16 after a courtship of more than a year and no signs of the breast cancer that nearly took her life. It was the cancer that then-Gov. Lamar Alexander cited as his reason for commuting her sentence in 1984.

Marshall Winstead, 35, was the first person to give her a job after her release.

"He's got the kind of faith that moves mountains. We're good for each other. I encourage him and he encourages me and we believe in each other," said Kathryn Winstead, 48, who has four children and six grandchildren.

"We're still newlyweds," she said.

At age 16 she had married England, and she blames 26 years of sexual abuse and emotional battery for the crime that earned her a life sentence at Tennessee Prison for Women.

She remembers vividly the morning of March 6, 1982, when she fired a hunting rifle through a hole in the ceiling above the bed where her husband slept.

"I'll always have trouble dealing with it," she said. "That isn't something that you just walk away from and forget. I was his slave. I was just another piece of equipment as far as he was concerned."

Just days after she entered prison, she said, she discovered a lump in her breast.

"I felt that lump and I knew I had cancer. I just knew. To tell you the truth, I just figured it was God's punishment for what I'd done. And I wasn't going to tell anybody. But they found it during the physical a few days after that."

Kathryn Winstead was told she had little chance of surviving, but she found new hope in prison under the prodding of her cell mate, Darce Neal, whose own cancer is in remission and who helped Kathryn Winstead earn a high school equivalency diploma.

"I had a pitiful self-image when I went in. All my life I had been told I was worthless. I changed really rapidly," Kathryn Winstead said.

"Darce kept after me with a whip. I mean, she was on my tail all the time. She was the one who just absolutely would not let me lay down and die. I needed for her to be there and God saw to it that she was."

April 30, 1984, is another day Kathryn Winstead will never forget. It's the day she walked out of prison and into the arms of her children, thinking she was going home to die.

Still, she said, "There was just something way deep down inside that said, 'I'm not dying.' It was just conviction. I said, 'I'll die someday, but not from this.' "

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments, along with the removal of a malignant tumor while she was still a prisoner, gave her another chance.

In her first year out of prison, Kathryn Winstead visited schoolchildren in Clinton who had written her and the governor on her behalf. She appeared on television to recount her life of abuse, and she spoke in towns and to Tennessee legislators urging the establishment of shelters for battered women.

The whirlwind subsided, but not her desire to help others.

"There comes a time when you have to start earning a living," she said. "You just can't survive with no income at all. So I got a job."

That's when Marshall Winstead hired her as a waitress. But the restaurant closed.

A succession of other jobs followed, and she started working at the truck stop about a year ago. She and her new husband, who sells insurance now, live in an old log cabin.

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