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Trial in minister slaying begins

Mary Winkler's husband was found with a fatal shotgun wound last spring. She's charged with murder.

April 13, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

SELMER, TENN. — Why did the preacher's wife allegedly kill her husband in their church parsonage?

That question has perplexed residents of this small western Tennessee town ever since Mary Winkler was charged last year with fatally shooting her husband, Matthew, with a 12-gauge shotgun. On Thursday, as her first-degree murder trial got underway, attorneys presented two starkly different answers.

Prosecutors said Mary Winkler calmly planned her husband's murder, fearing he would soon find out she had deposited counterfeit checks from a "Nigerian scam" into their joint bank accounts.

Defense attorneys portrayed Winkler, 33, as a long-suffering victim of emotional and physical abuse who had tried to cover bruises with make-up and visited her doctor with a "severely swollen jaw."

The killing was an accident, the defense said. Winkler fired the gun while intending to provoke her husband to talk about an incident involving their 1-year-old daughter, Breanna.

"The morning he did what he did to Breanna, she was going to get his attention with the very thing he had always threatened her with: a shotgun," defense attorney Steven Farese said during opening statements in McNairy County Justice Center. He did not elaborate on the incident.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, said the shooting was a deliberate and premeditated act, motivated by Winkler's fear that her husband would find out the extent of their financial troubles.

"The house of cards was falling down," said Walt Freeland, assistant district attorney, explaining that the day before the shooting, Mary Winkler had received several phone calls from representatives of her local bank urging her to come in with her husband to discuss account "irregularities."

The defense countered that Matthew Winkler made all decisions regarding household administration, instructing his wife to write checks so his own credit rating would not be not tarnished.

Matthew Winkler, 31, a pulpit minister at Selmer's Fourth Street Church of Christ, was found fatally wounded from a single shotgun blast. Fired at close range while he lay in bed on the morning of March 22, 2006, the round drove 77 steel pellets into his back, fracturing his spine and perforating his ribs, left lung, diaphragm, stomach and spleen.

His wife was arrested one day later in Orange Beach, Ala., with their three daughters.

For more than a year, this Bible Belt community of 4,500 has speculated about Mary Winkler's motives. By all accounts, she was the model minister's wife: quiet and meek, happily married, a devoted mother.

"Matthew and Mary Winkler had what appeared to everyone who observed them, those on the outside, to have had a marriage made in heaven," Farese said. "But behind closed doors it was a living hell."

Matthew Winkler's grandmother and brothers shook their heads as Farese described him as a domineering leader of the household, destroying objects that his wife loved, isolating her from her family, telling her she could not eat lunch because she was too fat.

"She had to be perfect to be the preacher's wife," Farese said.

Mary Winkler, dressed demurely in a navy suit with a small cross around her neck, raised a crumpled tissue to her nose as Farese outlined the difficulties of her marriage.

After opening statements, Matthew Winkler's father, Dan Winkler, also a Church of Christ minister, testified that he talked to his daughter-in-law after her arrest. "I said, 'I am so sorry for all of this,' and I told her I wished I could take the handcuffs off and I could give her a big bear hug," he said.

But Mary, he said, never apologized to him. "She should have," he added.

Farese suggested that Dan Winkler, who now has custody of his three grandchildren and recently filed a $2-million wrongful-death lawsuit against Mary Winkler, had manipulated the three girls against their mother. Prosecutors expect to call the eldest daughter, who is 9, to testify about what she saw on the morning of the homicide.

Dan Winkler has refused to let his daughter-in-law see her children, Farese said.

"What's your personal feeling: Do you think Mary should see her children today?" Farese asked.

Dan Winkler stared into the distance for a few seconds, apparently struggling to formulate an answer, before Farese abruptly withdrew the question.

The trial is expected to take about two weeks. If convicted of first-degree murder, Mary Winkler could receive a life sentence. But the jury will also have the option of finding her guilty of a lesser charge.

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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