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 its case.
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: “Why?”
“I told him that I was sorry and that I loved him,” Mary Winkler said. She dabbed the blood from his mouth with the sheet.
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 boom.”
“My daddy was face down on the floor,” the girl said. She heard him groaning, and she asked her mother what had happened.
“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 spectacle.
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 husband?
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 it—abuse 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 jurors—10 of 12 women—the “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 manslaughter—a 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 firm handshake.
Fourth Street Church of Christ, Selmer, Tenn.
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 Church.
McNairy County, Tenn.
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 advance-fee fraud.
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 checks—one from Canada, one from Nigeria—totaling $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 account.
“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 daughter—concerned about Matthew’s well-being—that 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 us.”
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 highway.
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 husband.
“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 came out.”
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 some time.”
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 retainer—at 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 $42,000—both well above the Tennessee average.
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 them.
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.
Laurel Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn.
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 family.
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 school—several 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 Winkler, college
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.”
Gentle transferred 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 fraternities.)
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 ago.
“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 Christ congregation.
Daughter Patricia — 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 cancer.
Mary became estranged from her father at about the time of that death, although she was in contact with her adopted siblings.
Matthew Winkler next took a job teaching Bible classes at Boyd Christian School, another Church of Christ affiliate, in McMinnville, in middle Tennessee.
“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.
Meanwhile, in January 2005 Matthew had taken a job as pulpit preacher at Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, the McNairy County seat.
McNairy County, Tenn.
McNairy, in 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.
DVD Cover: Walking Tall (1974 release)
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 murders.
McNairy County, 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.
The old-fashioned 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.
The fundamentalist faith has grown slowly but steadily. It now counts about 3 million adherents in the United States and has affiliate churches around the world.
Tennessee remains 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.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky
“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 their motivations.”
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 increasing burden.
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 them.”
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 opinion.
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 his thumb.
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 abuse—verbal, 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 storyline.
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 TV.
Prosecutors tried several times to negotiate a guilty plea. Farese and Ballin said they declined several offers—even after prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty against Winkler.
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 their queries:
“Can emotional abuse be as damaging as physical abuse?”
“Have you ever talked to someone who didn’t listen?”
“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 groaning.
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 shots.
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 scheme.
When the gun “accidentally” fired, she said, her instinct was to flee. She packed up her daughters and drove to the beach.
“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 tastes—including internet pornography as a prelude to sex—and 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 husband’s presence.
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 knockout punch.
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.
Under Tennessee 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.
Outside court, 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.
The prosecution 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 for probation.
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 sentence—210 days, minus the 143 already served and 60 days in a mental facility—once 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 murder today.”
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 the slaying.
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 Jackson, Tenn.
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 remorse.”
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.
Was 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.
Tennesse Bureau of Investigation
“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 said.
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 missing—some other component that causes the massive overreaction. Maybe it’s an insurance policy. Maybe it’s childhood abuse. Maybe it’s something else.”