A "Perfect" Life: Mary
By David Krajicek
The Big Boom
The drone of an alarm clock roused Mary Winkler
awake at 6:15 a.m. on March 22, 2006.
As her preacher husband, Matthew, 31, lay
sleeping, the diminutive woman slipped out of their marital bed
and padded quietly to the bedroom closet at their parsonage in
Selmer, Tenn. There, she withdrew a loaded 12 gauge shotgun from
She walked a few paces back toward the bed and
leveled the barrel on her husband's back.
"The next thing I remember was hearing a loud
boom," Mary Winkler would later say. "I remember thinking it
wasn't as loud as I thought it would be. I heard the boom, and he
rolled out of the bed onto the floor."
It was a brutally efficient shot. Matthew
Winkler took 77 pellets of birdshot that ravaged his sturdy body,
breaking his spine and puncturing several organs.
Yet he was not dead.
He lay on the floor with blood bubbles at his
mouth and managed to utter one final word to his wife of 10 years:
"I told him that I was sorry and that I loved
him," Mary Winkler said. She dabbed the blood from his mouth with
The blast startled the couple's three young
daughters, sleeping in another bedroom in the family's small home
in Selmer, Tenn.
The oldest, Patricia, cautiously crept into her
parents' bedroom to find the source of what she called the "big
"My daddy was face down on the floor," the girl
said. She heard him groaning, and she asked her mother what had
"I told her daddy was hurt," Mary Winkler said.
"I told her we were leaving."
By the following evening, when Winkler was
arrested on the Alabama coast, the case was a full-blown national
America wanted an answer to Matthew Winkler's
last question: Why? Why had this mousey woman used a shotgun to
terminate a seemingly harmonious marriage to her well-regarded
The college sweethearts seemed to be a loving,
Ken-and-Barbie couple. But from the outset, public opinion deemed
that he must have done something to deserve itabuse of his wife or
the children, a love affair, homosexuality.
Mary Winkler became a presumed victim and
Matthew a presumed abuser.
And her clever defense attorneys, Steve Farese
and Leslie Ballin, nurtured that image with a carefully controlled
story line: a demure, angelic woman pushed until she fought back
against a temperamental, perverted, domineering husband.
The shooting, it seemed, was an act of
vengeance of biblical proportion.
That narrative prevailed at trial, where Mary
Winkler mounted the witness stand and abashedly showed jurors10 of
12 womenthe "slutty" platform shoes and hoochie mama wig that
Matthew asked her to wear to bed.
Farese and Ballin steamrolled the prosecutor's
doomed attempt to gain a first-degree murder conviction.
Mrs. Winkler, facing a lifetime behind bars,
instead was convicted of voluntary manslaughtera kid-gloves
verdict that stunned many observers and delighted Farese, Ballin
and their client.
On June 8, 2007, Judge Weber McCraw decreed a
sentence of 210 days in prison and three years probation. But he
allowed 60 of the days to be served in a mental health facility.
And since she already served 143 days in jail before making bond,
the sentence meant she was would be a free woman after a week in
jail and two months in mental health treatment.
The surprising outcome enhanced the Winkler
case's reputation as one of the more curious criminal acts since
the seminal spectacle, OJ Simpson.
But left dangling were several questions.
For example, when did it become appropriate to
use a shotgun as a tool of marital dispute resolution, asks
forensic psychologist Dr. Kathy Seifert.
And who will raise the three daughters, the
subject of an upcoming court battle between grandparents Dan and
Diane Winkler, who have temporary custody, and their
daughter-in-law? (On the side, they are suing one another.)
The Winklers have one other question: Where can
they go to get their son's good reputation back?
In the weeks after the shooting, friends and
acquaintances used the word "perfect" to describe the relationship
of Matthew and Mary Winkler.
They seemed to live and breathe the Bible. The
Winklers, still a handsome young couple after 10 years of
marriage, had three precious daughters.
Matthew was a beloved "pulpit preacher" at
Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer. He was an athletic man
who greeted friends and strangers alike with a toothy smile and a
Mary was a supportive and well-liked partner in
Matthew's work. She was about to return to college to fulfill a
lifelong dream of becoming a schoolteacher.
They lived with their pet spaniel dog in a
brick parsonage on a shady lot not far from the church.
Even Selmer (pop. 4,500), in McNairy County,
seemed just right for the Winklers. They had moved there in
January 2005 when Matthew took the position at Fourth Street
It is the sort of place where people wear their
faith on their sleeves. One McNairy County telephone directory
lists more than 100 churches, but just three taverns.
It was all perfect for the Winklers until that
March morning in 2006.
A New Job
On March 21, Mary Winkler worked her very first
day as a substitute teacher in Selmer public schools. Her new
colleagues noticed that she spent an inordinate amount of time
while on break talking on her cell phone.
She rounded up her children after school and
went home to the parsonage, where she was met by her husband.
That night, the family watched "Chicken Little"
and ate Pizza Hut carryout. The parents tucked the girls into bed
at about 8:30.
Mary and Matthew then revisited a familiar
argument about family finances. The Winklers were broke, like many
young families with a modest income and a nursery full of
children. But the subject had a new urgency.
Mary Winkler, the family's bookkeeper, had
fallen for an Internet scam.
Millions of the scam emails are sent each year,
most seeking some form of good faith deposit from the victim in
exchange for the promise of a huge payoff. The concept has been
around for centuries and is known in the confidence rackets as the
It is known in Africa as the 419 scheme, for
the Nigerian law that bans it. Many of the scammers live in Festac
Town, Nigeria, outside the capital of Lagos. They call themselves
"yahoo-yahoo boys" because many have Yahoo accounts.
Like any financial scam, the success of the 419
scheme depends upon the greed of its victims. Those who bite are
drawn into a more elaborate scheme.
The scammers gain the trust of a victim by
wiring a small deposit into his bank account. Soon, the victim is
drawn into a check-kiting or money-laundering operation that
involves deposits and wire transfers of stolen or altered checks
from third-party accounts.
Mary Winkler was deeply involved in the scam.
Through wire transfers, she had deposited two
fraudulent checksone from Canada, one from Nigeriatotaling $17,500
in family accounts, then shifted some of the funds to a second
bank in the shell game known as check kiting.
She had withdrawn $500 cash by the time bank
officials caught on.
That is why she spent so much time on the phone
on March 21. Two Tennessee banks, Regions Bank in Selmer and First
State Bank in Henderson, were demanding to know Mary Winkler's
role in the 419 scheme.
She was never completely forthcoming in
explaining her involvement.
"I'd gotten a call from the bank, and we were
having troubles, mostly my fault. Bad bookkeeping,'' she would
later say. Referring to her husband, she added, "He was upset with
me about that."
(Attorney Farese claimed Matthew Winkler was
involved, as well. "As a family they were being conned," Farese
said. "The information we have is that he was aware of the
checks...and knew about where they were being deposited.")
The argument escalated from there, by her
"Matthew started ranting about problems he was
having and personal feelings about the church administration," she
said. "I didn't know what set him off. I was just listening to
him. He calmed down. We started the movie, and I fell asleep. He
woke me up. We went to bed...I remember not sleeping well."
But she said there were other problems that
seemed to culminate that night.
"I was upset at him because he had really been
on me lately, criticizing me for things, the way I walk, the way I
eat, everything. It was just building up to this point. I was just
tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and snapped."
To the Beach
The following morning, as Matthew lay drawing
his final breaths, Mary Winkler herded her daughters into the
family's minivan and drove away. She packed nothing, although she
did take along the shotgun.
She lied in telling her eldest
daughterconcerned about Matthew's well-beingthat help for him was
on the way.
She drove that evening to Jackson, Miss.,
staying at a Fairfield Inn, and then continued the next morning to
a Sleep Inn on the Gulf of Mexico in Orange Beach, Ala., a popular
regional vacation destination.
"The only reason I headed towards (Orange
Beach) is that I wanted to take them to the beach and play with
them as long as I could," Mary Winkler later said. "I planned on
coming (back) when we were through. I knew I would be caught...I
didn't tell the girls the truth that I had shot Daddy. I said he
was in the hospital, just anything to make up him not being with
She paid for hotel rooms, gas and food with
cash from the $500 she had withdrawn. She did not use credit cards
and did not phone anyone.
Matthew Winkler was found dead by church
members about 15 hours after he was shot, when he failed to show
up for his regular Wednesday night prayer meeting.
Tennessee authorities issued an Amber Alert for
the daughters, and Orange Beach Police Officer Jason Witlock
spotted the Winkler family van Thursday afternoon on the beach
Orange Beach police personnel entertained the
daughters, Patricia, then 8; Allie, 6, and Brianna, 1. The girls,
described by police as bright and inquisitive, were turned over to
the custody of Dan and Diane Winkler.
Mary Winkler's demeanor at arrest and her
police mug shot appeared to indicate depression, repressed
feelings, shock or some combination of each.
Police were puzzled by her lack of emotional
reaction as she was being taken into custody for slaying her
"There were no tears shed that I know of," said
Greg Duck, assistant police chief in Orange Beach. The arresting
officer said the woman seemed "relieved".
Tennessee police drove to Orange Beach and
interviewed Mrs. Winkler after midnight. With folksy language, she
calmly and precisely explained what she had done and why.
She said she had accepted abuse from her
husband "like a mouse" for many years. Then she said, her "ugly
In her statement to police, Winkler said she
had been beaten down by her husband over "stupid stuff" until she
was bullied to the brink of insanity.
"I love him dearly, but gosh, he just nailed me
in the ground," she said, "and I was real good for quite, quite
Police and prosecutors said the statement
indicated that she had given the killing some forethought, and
this apparent premeditation brought a first-degree murder charge.
Winkler agreed to return to Tennessee, where
she waived her right a preliminary hearing, based on advice from
her Dixie dream team of Memphis lawyers, Farese and Ballin.
They agreed to take the case without retainerat
least initially. A cynical view is that they agreed to work free
in exchange for the priceless publicity that the case brought.
But Farese said he did it as a favor to Memphis
attorney Mike Cook, a cousin of Mary Winkler.
Born in Knoxville
Mary Winkler was born Mary Carol Freeman in
1974 in Knoxville, a city of 200,000 located in the western lap of
the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Tennessee.
She and her parents, Clark and Mary Nell
Freeman, lived on Frontier Trail, in a modestly affluent
neighborhood in southwest Knoxville, where the city fades into
farm fields. Census statistics indicate the Freemans' ZIP code is
94 percent white, with an average home value of $100,000 and
average household income of $42,000both well above the Tennessee
Mary's mother was a teacher, and her father
worked in real estate as a house flipper. He bought rundown
properties at bargain-basement rates, then renovated and resold
The Freeman family attended Laurel Church of
Christ in Knoxville, a 200-family congregation known for its
campus ministry at the University of Tennessee. Clark Freeman
served as a deacon at Laurel.
The family suffered a loss when younger
daughter Patricia, a quadriplegic, died during a seizure when Mary
was 8 years old. Not long after the girl died, the Freemans
adopted five children, two boys and three girls from the same
When she was young, Mary went by her middle
name, Carol, perhaps to differentiate from her mother, Mary Nell.
Mary Carol had an active extracurricular
schedule in high schoolseveral choruses, Spanish club, a religion
society, tennis, Future Teachers of America.
She graduated in 1992 from South-Doyle High
School, part of the Knoxville public school system.
She spent the 1992-93 academic year at
Nashville's David Lipscomb University, a flagship college for
Churches of Christ believers, then transferred the following year
to Freed-Hardeman University, another Churches of Christ affiliate
in Henderson, Tenn., 20 miles north of Selmer.
Mary met Matthew Winkler at the school, where
Matthew's father worked as an adjunct professor.
Family Business: Faith
Religion was the Winklers' family business.
Matthew's paternal grandfather, Wendell
Winkler, was a fire-and-brimstone evangelist who preached in the
southeast for more than 50 years. His father, Dan, was a
peripatetic Church of Christ minister and mother, Diane, a
teacher. The couple has two other sons, Dan Jr. and Jacob.
The family moved frequently, following Dan Sr.
from one church position to the next.
Matthew graduated from Austin High School in
Decatur, Ala., where his father was a preacher at Beltline Church
of Christ. Tall, handsome and fit, Matthew was a sports star at
Austin High, and he continued to stand out in college.
Freed-Hardeman is a venerable Christian
university with a picture-postcard campus set on a hill in
Henderson, a small city in western Tennessee.
The school has 2,000 students who major in
business, education, Bible study, fine arts or science and math.
About two-thirds of the students are from Tennessee. The student
body is overwhelmingly white, and 9 in 10 are Church of Christ
members, according to the school's student profiles.
Matthew majored in Bible study, and Mary
studied elementary education.
The university's website describes an austere
student lifestyle at Freed-Hardeman, particularly when compared
with non-religious colleges.
For example, the student handbook mandates
"modesty and appropriateness" in fashion and grooming. A strict
midnight curfew is enforced. Students are required to attend daily
chapel service, and dormitories are segregated by gender.
The university website notes:
"Halloween provides a unique activity on
campus. Students are allowed to trick-or-treat in dorms of the
opposite sex. This is the only time during the school year when
members of the opposite sex are allowed to visit each other's
dorms beyond the lobbies."
Yet a classmate of Mary and Matthew Winkler
told the Crime Library that the school was less restrictive in
practice than it might seem on paper.
"Life Was Good"
"Life was good
there," said Elizabeth Gentle, 32, a native of Haileyville, Ala.
"It was a lot of fun."
to the school in 1994, the same year as Mary Freeman. They went
through orientation together, and she remained friendly throughout
the year with Mary, whom she recalled as a tiny young woman with
long brunette tresses.
"She was a nice
girl," Gentle said. "She was quiet. She was unassuming. She had a
pretty smile on her face. She was easy to get along with. I sat
next to her in Bible class, and she always had a good attitude.
She was willing to socialize, and she could be funny. She just had
a sweet spirit about her. I can't say anything bad about her."
Mary Freeman was a
member of the campus Evangelism Forum, and she was active in Phi
Kappa Alpha, one of six campus social clubs. (Despite Greek names,
the clubs are not associated with traditional sororities and
Gentle also was
acquainted with Matthew Winkler, whom she recalled as always
wearing "an infectious smile."
"I can't say
anything bad about him, either," she said. "He loved life, loved
people...They were just good Christian people."
Gentle went on to
become a broadcast journalist, and she has worked for the past six
years for WAFF-TV in Huntsville, Ala.
She said it did
not immediately sink in that the minister killed in Tennessee had
been her old Freed-Hardeman classmate.
And when she
realized that the alleged perpetrator was the demure former Mary
Freeman, "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Gentle covered the
story for her station, watching in the Selmer courtroom as her old
college friend was led in wearing orange prison scrubs.
She was not the
same woman, Gentle said. Her hair was shorn, and her dull
expression was not that of the lively coed she had known a decade
"To me she has a
different look on her face now than she did then," Gentle said.
"It just seems blank."
Mary Freeman and
Matthew Winkler were married in 1996 in a backyard ceremony at
Mary's family home in Knoxville, with Clark Freeman presiding.
They returned to Freed-Hardeman, but financial considerations
forced the young couple to leave college in 1997 after Mary got
pregnant, according to a former classmate.
The young couple
settled in Nashville, where Matthew completed his Bible study
degree while working as a youth minister at the Bellevue Church of
— named after Mary's late sister — arrived in October 1997,
followed three years later by Mary Alice, known as Allie. Between
the two births, the family suffered the loss of Mary's mother to
estranged from her father at about the time of that death,
although she was in contact with her adopted siblings.
next took a job teaching Bible classes at Boyd Christian School,
another Church of Christ affiliate, in McMinnville, in middle
"Matt had it all,"
the principal there, Eva Ferrell, told Woody Baird of the
Associated Press. "He was handsome. He was full of personality. He
was smart. But most importantly he had a good, Christian soul".
Move to Selmer
The year 2005
brought more changes for the Winklers.
In March, about a
year after suffering a miscarriage, Mary gave birth prematurely to
the couple's third daughter, Brianna. The newborn was cared for at
a hospital in Nashville, 150 miles from home, which led to many
car trips back and forth.
January 2005 Matthew had taken a job as pulpit preacher at Fourth
Street Church of Christ in Selmer, the McNairy County seat.
southwest Tennessee near the Mississippi border, is best known as
the home of Buford Pusser, the stick-toting sheriff whose life was
portrayed in a series of three films in the 1970s. Pusser, just 26
when he was elected sheriff in 1964, won a reputation as an
uncompromising foe of crimes high and low, and he set about
cleaning up the vice, gambling and corruption.
It is not easy to
square McNairy's "Walking Tall" reputation for lawlessness with
actual police reports.
Homicide is rare
in the county, which has a population of 25,000. In 2003, the
county reported a total of just 28 violent crimes, none of them
named for a 19th century Nashville judge, is poor, 93 percent
white and relatively uneducated.
About one in six
residents live in poverty. Just 9 percent of residents have a
four-year college degree, compared with about 18 percent of all
Tennessee residents and nearly a quarter of the U.S. population.
But what it lacks
in education McNairy makes up for in fervent faith.
Among its more
than 100 churches, McNairy County counts 18 affiliates of the
Churches of Christ and 30 Southern Baptist congregations. Selmer
has about 30 churches.
Some believe the
Winklers' faith was a subscript to the spousal homicide.
The Churches of
Christ use a literal reading of the Bible for its creed. Nearly
all leadership positions are held by men. Women are
subservient--said to be decreed in the Apostle Paul's epistle that
wives must submit to their husbands.
church practices full-immersion adult Baptism, and it forbids the
use of musical instruments during services.
Churches of Christ
regard themselves not as a denomination but as a network of
like-minded autonomous congregations, each governed by its own
slate of elders. (They are not related to the United Church of
Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination.)
The elders are
assisted by deacons, who often have responsibility for practical
matters, such as buildings and grounds. The religious leader at a
Churches of Christ affiliate typically is called "evangelist" or
"pulpit preacher"--the position that Matthew Winkler held.
The faith is
deeply rooted in Tennessee, where two influential adherents,
Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb, lived and preached.
faith has grown slowly but steadily. It now counts about 3 million
adherents in the United States and has affiliate churches around
a Church of Christ stronghold, with more than 400 congregations.
Most members of the Fourth Street Church say
they did not see signs that Mary and Matthew Winkler were having
problems. Some wonder whether they missed warning signs.
"I wish I had," said one woman. "A lot of us
are feeling a little guilty."
Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a professor of clinical
psychology at Columbia University, noted that ministers and their
wives live a fishbowl lifestyle.
"There's no question, as we now well know, that
people of the cloth have secrets," she told the Crime Library.
"Religiosity can have dark sides. We don't like to think about
that. We like to think that members of the clergy are only pure in
Typically, Kuriansky said, a violent act such
as the Winkler murder is precipitated by a final "grand insult"
that tops off some festering problem.
"The dimensions of a good relationship include
compromise and communication," said Kuriansky, author of "The
Complete Idiot's Guide to a Healthy Relationship." "When you don't
compromise and communicate, things build up over time."
She said shrinks called it "gunny-sacking":
Problems are hidden in a metaphorical burlap bag that becomes an
Kuriansky said ministers rarely seek help for
personal problems because they fear they could lose their job if
they admit to being less than perfect.
As one minister's spouse put it, "Until someone
has walked in the shoes of a pastor's wife, they have no idea what
kind of pressures and unrealistic expectations are often put on
Coincidentally, one of those who stepped
forward to speak about the dynamics of clergy marriages was Gayle
Haggard, whose husband, Ted, was a nationally known fundamentalist
preacher in Colorado Springs.
Haggard told a reporter that women like Mary
Winkler feel pressure "to live a certain way, to dress a certain
way, for their children to behave a certain way."
Eight months later, Haggard resigned after
admitting to using methamphetamines and a having a long
relationship with a gay prostitute.
In August 2006, after five months behind bars,
Mary Winkler posted $750,000 bail with help from her father, who
mortgaged his property.
She moved to McMinnville, Tenn., to live with
Kathy Thomsen, an old church friend.
Soon after Mary's release, her defense team
began to press its abused-spouse narrative in the court of public
First came a profile of Mary Winkler in the
November 2006 issue of Glamour magazine.
Her attorneys agreed to allow her to pose for
photos, including one featuring her crucifix necklace. Her father
and siblings offered testimony to the woman's saintly nature while
castigating Winkler for obsessing on money and holding Mary under
Clark Freeman, Mary's father, added elusive
references indicating that his estrangement with his daughter was
related to some unspeakable abuse at the hands of Matthew.
Attorney Farese picked up on that theme.
"Only Mary can talk about his temper and how
controlling he was," he told the Glamour reporter. "God and
Matthew Winkler: These were the two figures she served...Mary did
not know up from down and was literally trapped."
At about the time the magazine article was
published, Mary Winkler's support team appeared on ABC's "Good
Morning America," where they again made accusations of Matthew's
abuseverbal, mental, physical, sexual.
The television spot served as a dress-rehearsal
for the defense argument at trial.
One friend said she saw Mary with a black eye,
and another said the woman cowered before her husband.�
"I saw bad bruises," said Clark Freeman. "The
heaviest of makeup covering facial bruises. So one day, I
confronted her. I said, 'Mary Carol, you are coming off as a much
abused wife, very battered'...(She) would hang her head and say,
'No, daddy, everything's all right.'"
"There are all kinds of abuse imaginable that
will be talked about at the trial," added attorney Ballin. "What
went on behind their closed doors is going to have to be told."
There was just one brief diversion from this
On New Year's Eve 2006, Mary Winkler was
spotted smoking and drinking at a McMinnville bar. A customer
captured her on a cell phone video, and the footage aired on local
Prosecutors tried several times to negotiate a
guilty plea. Farese and Ballin said they declined several
offerseven after prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty
Prosecutor Walt Freeland went to trial seeking
a first-degree murder conviction and a 51-year sentence.
Trial observers judged that the prosecution was
outflanked by the nimble defense team. Farese and Ballin managed
to mold testimony to fit their abuse-spouse narrative, and the
prosecutors were lousy counter-punchers.
The preacher's wife may have been saved from
life in prison even before testimony began.
"This trial shows once again that the most
important part of any trial is the jury selection," Michael
Mendelson, a longtime New York criminal defense attorney, told the
Crime Library. "The OJ Simpson case proved that, and this case
proved it again. If you get the right jury, you win. If you don't
get the right jury, you lose."
Farese and Ballin seated a jury with 10 women
and two men. During three days of jury selection, the attorneys
closely questioned potential jurors about spousal abuse. Among
"Can emotional abuse be as damaging as physical
"Have you ever talked to someone who didn't
"Have you ever wondered why someone would stay
in an abusive relationship?"
Even in jury selection, they were molding Mary
as an empathetic figure overwhelmed by years of abuse.
"This was a southern jury filled with southern
women," Mendelson said. "Even today, some southern women are born
into a heritage of deference to their husbands. You might have had
10 women sitting on that jury who have experienced the same sort
of thing, and here they are judging one woman who had the balls to
do something about her situation. They may have been saying, 'Aha,
it's get-even time.'"
The conventional wisdom is that women jurors
are tougher than men on women defendants, but the defense
attorneys obviously saw something in this particular jury that
prosecutor Freeland did not.
The Winklers' oldest child, Patricia, then a
fourth-grader, appeared as a prosecution witness, giving brief but
heartbreaking testimony that often left the child, her mother,
many jurors and spectators in tears.
Prosecutor Freeland asked whether Matthew had
been a good father, and the child softly replied, "Yes, sir."
Asked whether he had ever been "ugly" with her mother, she
responded, "No, sir."
The girl, dressed in a black-and-white polka
dot dress, said she and her sisters were startled awake by a "big
boom or something" on the morning of the slaying. She said she
crept into her parents' bedroom and found her father on the floor
Her mother, she said, "was just walking around,
and she saw us and closed the door...Me and Allie was scared."
The child said she has seen her mother only
once since her arrest.
"I didn't want to see her," she said. "I mean,
I still love her, I just don't want to."
Matthew's mother, Diane, later testified that
during the children's first visit with Mary, she told them that
she had not killed Matthew. She indicated that both she and the
children were angered by what they saw as a bald-faced lie.
During the trial, Mary Winkler seemed to have
regained some of the spark that college friends said was missing
from the emotionally blank young woman displayed in her arrest mug
She dressed conservatively but with modest
flair, and she was clearly engaged by the proceedings.
Her trial testimony proved key, although it was
hardly the X-rated subject matter that Ballin had hinted at.
She revealed that her husband pressed her to
engage in oral and anal sex, which she viewed as unnatural. She
said he insisted that she dress up "slutty" in an Afro wig,
miniskirts and footwear fit for a hooker.
In a brilliant show-and-tell gambit, defense
attorneys Farese and Ballin entered the wig and shoes into
evidence. During her testimony, Winkler shyly gripped one of the
white platform shoes by its eight-inch stiletto heel.
Any defense that calls a defendant to the
witness stand is taking a risk. But it paid off in this case.
Farese and Ballin used the boilerplate defense
for gunshot cases: Their client was holding the gun, but she did
not mean to use it.
Winkler admitted that she pointed a shotgun at
her husband's back but said she did not intend to pull the
trigger. She indicated she was in a state of near delirium over
their marriage. Their checking account was overdrawn by $5,000,
and she was under pressure from Matthew over the check-kiting
When the gun "accidentally" fired, she said,
her instinct was to flee. She packed up her daughters and drove to
"All I knew was that the stupid gun had went
off, and nobody would believe me and they would just take my girls
away from me," she testified.
Winkler said she had suffered silently through
years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. She demurely
reviewed Matthew's sexual tastesincluding internet pornography as
a prelude to �sexand said he had punched and kicked her.
It was a classic abused-spouse defense.
Yet, during her initial statement to police
after she was arrested, Mary specifically said that Matthew had
not abused her in any way.
Why had she changed her story?
"I was ashamed," she said. "I didn't want
anybody to know about Matthew."
It seemed like a crucial contradiction on which
the prosecution could capitalize. But prosecutor Freeland let the
opportunity slip by.
The defense offered some corroborating evidence
two people who witnessed Matthew's temper; the friends who saw
Mary's black eye and watched her cower when she was in her
During his presentation of evidence, Freeland
attempted to focus attention on the Internet scam and the couple's
financial problems. He was able to land a few jabs but never a
Freeland later insisted that Matthew Winkler
was "a good daddy who didn't abuse anybody." But defense attorney
Farese countered, "If you look up spousal abuse in the dictionary,
you're going to see Mary Winkler's picture."
After a three-week
trial, the jury deliberated for eight hours on March 22 before
announcing the verdict to a hushed Selmer courtroom: Mary Winkler
was judged guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
law, voluntary manslaughter is a crime of passion "produced by
adequate provocation sufficient to lead a reasonable person to act
in an irrational manner."
There was no
reaction in the courtroom to the verdict, even though it was
filled with the loved ones of both Matthew and Mary Winkler.
Later, after Judge
McCraw dismissed the jurors, Mary Winkler hugged her attorneys,
her father and other kin in the courtroom.
Matthew's father, Dan Winkler, expressed no anger and revealed
little emotion. Instead, he made a polite statement thanking the
jurors, judge, prosecutor and police.
team, disappointed by the verdict, issued a statement expressing
condolences to Matthew Winkler's family.
After the trial's
conclusion, defense attorney Farese revealed that Mary Winkler had
turned down three plea bargains.
"We were offered
35 years," Farese said. "We were offered 20 years. We were offered
15 years. We're now looking at three to six years. My reaction is
the verdict was most probably just."
"There are no
winners," added Ballin. "We're left with the memory of Matthew
Winkler. And even though there have been a lot of negative things
said about him in this trial, there was a good side to him, too.
You heard that from Mary, 'He could be so good at times.' This is
a case about two people who had a tumultuous marriage of some 10
years that ended in tragedy. Nothing good about it."
210 Days for a Life
Because she was a first-time felon, Mary
Winkler faced a sentence range of three to six years when she
stood before Judge McCraw to get her comeuppance. He also had the
discretion to order probation.
During a five-hour sentencing hearing, Freeland
argued for the maximum six-year sentence. Farese and Ballin argued
Mary Winkler, who was among the 10 people who
testified, read a statement that seemed disingenuous: She rued the
loss of the man she killed.
"I've suffered the loss of someone I loved,"
she said. "I've lost my freedom. I've lost my children, and I've
had my life be put on public display. I think of Matthew every
day, and the guilt, and I always miss him and love him."
She said acknowledged there were both good and
bad times in the marriage, "And I wish I could have that good
Matthew, and we could live together forever...I hope this
situation sheds light on unhealthy relationships, and that others
will find the strength and have the courage to seek help before
such a tragedy occurs again."
McCraw received 90 letters of recommendation
written on Winkler's behalf. His 25-minute long sentencing edict,
which he recited from a written script, included no chastising
words about the defendant.
McCraw said the offense made Winkler eligible
for prison since it met the state's legal definition of a
"violent, shocking and reprehensible" act. But he added, "In
fashioning this sentence, the court has considered the seriousness
of the offense, the jury's verdict and the testimony about
allegations of abuse of the defendant."
The sentence210 days, minus the 143 already
served and 60 days in a mental facilityonce again brought mute
reaction in the courtroom.
Mary Winkler simply bowed her head and closed
her eyes for about 20 seconds, as if in prayer.
"I'm quite happy," Farese said outside court.
"I think in the end he (Judge McCraw) did what was right."
Outside court before the sentencing hearing,
jury foreman Bill Berry gave Court TV an unusually blunt
assessment of the trial and his fellow jurors.
He said the jury leaned heavily in favor of
Mrs. Winkler due to the "10 ladies" seated on the jury.
"I don't think justice was done," said Berry.
"It's the times we're living in. People are getting away with
He called the gender makeup of the jury
"unbalanced" and "unfair."
He said that after the first seven hours of
deliberations, nine of the 10 women appeared ready to vote for
acquittal. They "wanted her to just walk free," Berry said.
He said the verdict of voluntary manslaughter
was a compromise.
"We had to settle on something," he said.
Berry said he believed Winkler was "not
completely" truthful when she testified to physical, sexual and
mental abuse at the hands of her husband. He said he doubted the
physical abuse and was not sure about sexual abuse, but he
conceded there may have been mental abuse.
Berry said he had hoped Judge McCraw would
sentence Winkler to the maximum time in prison, and he said she
"doesn't deserve" to regain custody of her daughters.
There are lingering legal issues surrounding
Fights lie ahead between Mary Winkler and her
in-laws. Diane and Dan Winkler filed a $2 million wrongful death
civil suit against her, and they are seeking permanent custody of
their three grandchildren.
The Winklers are trying to terminate Mary's
parental rights, and she responded with a petition to seek
immediate custody. The case is pending in Chancery Court in
The most riveting moments in the sentencing
hearing came during victim impact statements given by the Matthew
Winkler's brother and mother. After initially expressing love and
support for their daughter-in-law, Winkler family has had an
increasingly contentious relationship with her.
"I've watched as the life of my brother has
been turned into a circus," testified Dan Winkler Jr. While
starting icily at his sister-in-law, he added, "I don't see any
Most withering was the testimony of the
victim's mother, Diane Winkler.
"You broke your girls' hearts," Mrs. Winkler
said during a stern 30-minute monologue in which she stared
intently at Mary Winkler, who sat wearing a print dress and white
sweater. "Mary, you have destroyed your husband's character. You
have destroyed his good name...You have accused him of being a
monster who abused and belittled you."
What It Justice?
Tom Flowers watched the Winkler story unfold
with keen interest.
A Tennessean, he attended the same college as
the Winklers, was raised in their denomination and had met
Matthew's preacher grandfather, Wendell.
He said the prosecution strategy that sought a
murder conviction and long sentence was flawed.
"I was just stunned when the prosecution�was
pressing for a conviction of premeditated, first-degree murder,"
he said. "So when the verdict came out, I was satisfied that
justice had been served."
But was it justice?
A few months after the slaying, when the motive
in the case was still a mystery, Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman
for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, made a prescient
comment when contacted by Crime Library.
"At the end of the day, this probably won't
make much more sense to the public than it does right now,"
Johnson said. She added, "I think most people will be
thinking...'I just don't get it.'"
Perhaps the outcome was a form of backlash
against the clergy after two decades of scandals among Catholic
and Protestant denominations. Perhaps it was payback after
generations of the dirty little secret of spousal abuse.
But Dr. Kathy Seifert, the forensic
psychotherapist, said there are unanswered questions about Mary
Winkler's "massive overreaction" to whatever marital problems the
couple might have been having.
"My suspicion is that someone who uses violence
as a means of a resolving domestic problem has a model of that
violence, abuse or neglect somewhere in her background," Seifert
She said the profile of Mary Winkler presented
in her defense narrative seemed to fit the classic profile of a
"hot" violent female. These often are passive victims of abuse who
"get to the point where they can't take it anymore, and something
snaps, and they finally seek their revenge."
Seifert added that the kinky sex angle doesn't
seem to ring true.
"I can see a very conservative lady not exposed
to the world very much becoming very, very upset and
psychologically damaged by that," she said. "But when it comes to
killing somebody over something like that, it feels like there's a
piece of information missingsome other component that causes the
massive overreaction. Maybe it's an insurance policy. Maybe it's
childhood abuse. Maybe it's something else."