Winkler children caught in middle of bitter custody battle

Matthew Winkler's mother Diane Winkler
Matthew Winkler's mother Diane Winkler

Reported by Anna Marie Hartman 06/10/07

Mary Winkler's three little girls were not in the courtroom when she was sentenced on Friday. But they were often the topic of the testimony.

Matthew Winkler's mother read a letter from her sister who wonders what impact Mary Winkler's crime will have on Mary's three children.

Child Psychologist Rebecca Rutledge is concerned that the Winkler children are caught in the middle of a family at odds.

The three little girls are currently in the custody of their grandparents Dan and Diane Winkler.

"Certainly they have a right to their anger and their resentment. What worries me is that it may be spilling onto the children," explains Dr. Rutledge.

The Winkler's have filed a custody suit to adopt the three little girls and terminate Mary Winkler's parental rights.

At the sentencing on Friday, Diane Winkler asked Mary, "will Patricia, Ali and Brianna think it's okay to take a life when life is hard or challenging. Their mother did."

Rutledge says , "I think that was kind of hitting below the belt and being a little bit melodramatic."

Rutledge believes, with the proper counseling, Mary Winkler and her children could be reunited.

"Yea, I think she ought to be allowed to raise her children. I think its going to be hard and I think they're going to need lots of help. But then you wonder, what are they going to do with the grandparents," adds Rutledge.

Rutledge says a feud between families won't help the children heal.

And if they're forced to choose, they may lose family members again.

By mid-August the woman convicted of killing her preacher husband will be out of jail. But Mary Winkler's legal battles are far from over.

After a sentencing hearing in Selmer Friday, Mary Winkler was ordered to serve 67 days behind bars for the shooting death of her husband Matthew.

Once she is released, Winkler will have to go to court to regain custody of her children.

Winkler is now in a custody fight for the girls, ages 9, 7 and 2, with her husband's parents, Dan and Diane Winkler of Huntingdon.

Matthew Winkler's parents have filed a custody suit to adopt their late son's three daughters and terminate Mary Winkler's parental rights.

A parent's rights typically exceed the rights of grandparents in custody cases.

But Mary Winkler's manslaughter conviction could work against her. According to state adoption laws the court can terminate parental rights if a parent has been convicted of the "intentional and wrongful death of the child's other parent."

By law the court must also consider whether a parent is mentally competent to care for a child.

Lawyers for Dan and Diane Winkler will likely raise the question if Mary Winkler was unstable enough to shoot her husband, is she stable enough now to raise her daughters.

Mary Winkler asked the Tennessee Court of Appeals to stop efforts by her husband's parents to terminate her parental rights and adopt her kids until a juvenile court judge hears her petition for their immediate return.

After Dan and Diane Winkler filed a termination-and-adoption petition in Carroll County Chancery Court on April 24, Juvenile Court Judge Christy Little ruled she had no authority to continue with the hearing requested by Mary Winkler for the immediate return of her girls.

"As a result of the suspension of the Juvenile Court proceedings, the three minor children continue to be withheld from their mother without just cause resulting in substantial mental and emotional harm to mother and her children," Winkler's attorney Kay Farese Turner wrote in court papers.

The children have been in the custody of the grandparents since their mother's arrest the day after the shooting.

Mary Winkler, who killed her preacher husband with a shotgun blast to the back as he lay in bed, got a three-year prison sentence Friday, but she may spend only a few months in a mental hospital.

Mary Winkler, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in April, could have received up to six years for killing her husband, Matthew, in the parsonage where the family lived in this small west Tennessee town in March 2006.

But Judge Weber McCraw said Winkler must serve 210 days, or about seven months, of her sentence before she can be released on probation, but she gets credit for the 143 days she has already spent in jail.

That leaves only 67 days, and McCraw said up to 60 days of the sentence could be served in a facility where she could receive mental health treatment.

That means Winkler would spend only another week in jail and no further significant time in prison.

She was taken into custody after the sentence was read.

Her attorneys acknowledged they got nearly everything they wanted at the sentencing, but they were going to talk to Winkler about whether she wants to appeal or ask for a new trial.

"This is probably the end of a long saga," defense attorney Steve Farese said.

A small-town preacher's wife convicted of killing her husband with a 12-gauge shotgun faces a prison term of up to six years for voluntary manslaughter at her sentencing Friday.

But Mary Winkler's lawyers were expected to ask for probation and she is unlikely to spend more than a year and a half in prison, regardless of her sentence. Winkler, 33, went to trial on a first-degree murder charge in April, but a jury found her guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter after she testified she was physically and emotionally abused by her husband, Matthew Winkler.

A murder conviction could have meant 25 years to life in prison, and prosecutors were expected to ask Judge Weber McCraw to give Winkler at least some time behind bars.

She would be eligible for parole after serving 30 percent of her term and get credit for five months already spent in jail while awaiting trial.

Winkler and her defense team arrived for her sentencing hearing about 45 minutes early.

Reporters asked her how she was doing, but it was her lawyer who answered. "She's been instructed not to say anything," attorney Steve Farese said.

Matthew Winkler, 31, was the pulpit preacher for the Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, a small town about 80 miles east of Memphis.

He was found dead in March 2006 at the parsonage he shared with his wife and their three young daughters.

Mary Winkler told investigators she shot her husband after a night of arguing over finances and other family matters. At trial, she said she pointed a shotgun at him as he lay in bed but the gun fired accidentally.

In seeking a prison term, prosecutors noted in a court filing that Winkler used a firearm against a vulnerable victim who trusted her.

Matthew Winkler was shot in the back while lying in bed.

Defense lawyers pointed out in a similar filing that Mary Winkler has no prior criminal record and shows no indication of danger to the public.

They have also filed a petition for a new trial.

At the time of the slaying, church members said the Winklers appeared to be a perfect Christian family and described their minister as a dynamic, by-the-Bible preacher.

But Mary Winkler told trial jurors her husband hit and kicked her, forced her to look at pornography and demanded sex she considered unnatural.

Jurors were shown a pair of tall, platform shoes and a black wig Winkler said she was pressured to wear during sex.

Church members found Matthew Winkler's body and reported his wife and children missing.

They were located the following day in Orange Beach, Ala., and Mary Winkler said she was taking the children to the beach.

She is now in a custody fight for the girls, ages 9, 7 and 2, with her husband's parents, Dan and Diane Winkler of Huntingdon.

Reported by Jason Miles 06/07/07

The McNairy County Courthouse is a familiar place to Mary Winkler.  It's where she spent 5 months in jail.

It's where she went on trial.  And Friday morning, it's where she will find out if she is heading back behind bars.

Mary Winkler faces up to six years in prison for shooting her preacher husband Matthew in the back.

But the small town of Selmer is divided about whether she deserves the maximum sentence.

"I think she should do time," said Selmer resident Charles Westbrooks. "You shouldn't take the law in your own hands.  It's not right."

"My personal opinion is that she's suffered, enough and served enough time," countered Selmer resident Betty Doss.

Winkler's defense team agrees.  They hope the judge gives her diversion, or probation, and no prison time.

Attorney Steve Farese said his team will call several witnesses during the sentencing hearing.

Those people will speak to why they believe Winkler deserves to be free.

"Her life history: no run ins with the law...her work history:  she's always worked," he said.

If the judge does sentence Winkler to prison, Farese says anything more than 30 days will prompt a swift appeal.

"He's had the whole trial, there's not much more we can give him," Farese said.  "I feel he's going to do what he feels is right under the law."

Farese said Winkler is apprehensive about the hearing, but ready to get it over with.