Last week’s case was the mysterious disappearance (and presumed murder) of candy heiress Helen Brach. This week’s case takes us to Tennessee where, in 2006, Mary Winkler killed her minister husband with a shotgun blast. The crime may have been straightforward, but the resulting court case was anything but.
Mary and Matthew Winkler
Mary Carol Freeman met Matthew Winkler in 1993 when both were students at Freed-Hardeman University. Freed-Hardeman, in Henderson, Tennessee is a school affiliated with the Church of Christ. Matthew was popular and had charisma; Mary was quiet but displayed a winning smile. The couple married in 1996.
Ten years later, Matthew was the pulpit pastor of the Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, Tennessee. Selmer is a small town in the southwestern corner of the state and close to the border with Mississippi. Even though small, Selmer is the seat of McNairy County.
Murder of Matthew Winkler
On March 22, 2006, Rev. Winkler failed to show up for a Wednesday evening church service. Church members who went to his home to investigate found him dead on the floor of his bedroom. He’d been killed by a shotgun blast to the back that lodged 77 pellets in his body.
Mary Winkler and the couple’s three daughters were missing, so authorities issued an Amber Alert. Two days later, police arrested Mary in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie grocery store in Orange Beach, Alabama. The arresting officers described Mary as “stoic” and having a “blank look on her face.”
Questioned by investigators, Mary said she and her husband had been arguing over money. She claimed not to remember retrieving the shotgun she admitted knowing her husband kept in the house. The next thing she heard, she claimed, was a loud boom.
Mary Winkler on Trial
The State of Tennessee extradited Mary Winkler from Alabama and set her bond at $750,000. At least part of the reason the bond was so high was that she had shot Matthew in the back. Also, he was still alive when she left the house, plus she had disconnected the bedroom phone. With prompt medical attention, he may have survived his wounds.
At the bond hearing, the prosecution claimed that Mary had lost $17,000 in a so-called “Nigerian scam” swindle. During an argument with Matthew over the money, Mary got the shotgun and killed him. Mary contended that, although she wrote the checks and kept the records, she only did what her husband told her to do.
Mary claimed that she suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse at Matthew’s hands for years. According to her testimony, Matthew had lately criticized her for the way she walked, ate, and “everything.” She said, “I guess I got to a point and snapped.”
Mary’s trial for first-degree murder began in April 2007. She claimed her husband forced her to wear “slutty” costumes for sex and produced a pair of platform heels and a wig as supposed proof. Apparently, the small-town jury put great stock by this so-called proof because there was an audible gasp in the courtroom. She additionally said she shot her husband accidentally and only retrieved the gun to force Matthew to discuss their problems. However, this was at variance from what she told police immediately after her arrest.
Incredibly, after eight hours of deliberations, the jury convicted Mary Winkler of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. On June 8, 2007, a judge sentenced her to a mere 210 days in prison, with credit for the five months she spent in jail before bonding out. The judge allowed her to spend up to 60 days in a mental health facility in Tennessee and was to be on probation for the remainder of the sentence.
This was an incredibly lenient sentence for an incredibly lenient verdict. Regardless of whether her testimony about abuse was true, she shot her husband in the back. Then she left him on the floor to bleed out.
Diane Fanning’s book, The Pastor’s Wife, covers the case (disclaimer: I have not read it).
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