Winkler case starting today, drawing national attention to Tennessee
SELMER, Tenn. – Soon after their alarm clock went off at 6 a.m. March 22 last year, Mary Carol Winkler got her husband’s 12-gauge shotgun from the closet and put herself at the center of a murder case that has drawn national attention to this small town.
The quiet, mild-mannered 33-year-old preacher’s wife aimed at her husband, Matthew, who was still in bed a few feet away, and pulled the trigger.
The case, which is scheduled for trial today, drew widespread media attention from the moment Winkler, 31, was found dead and his wife and three young daughters were reported missing in an Amber Alert.
“We’ve had several trials in Tennessee that have attracted a lot of attention, most notably the Perry March trial and the Baker-He case,” said Sue Allison, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
“But if everyone shows up who indicated they will, this one probably will set a record for number of reporters and news outlets.”
March, a Nashville attorney, was convicted last year of murdering his wife, Janet, who vanished in 1996 without a trace. The Baker-He case involved a long-running custody dispute over a young Chinese girl in Memphis.
Mary Winkler is charged with first-degree premeditated murder, which carries life in prison with parole possible after 51 years.
She has been free since August on $750,000 bond and has been working at a cleaners in McMinnville, where the Winklers once lived, about 190 miles east of Selmer.
Mary Winkler told authorities she killed her husband, a popular preacher at the Fourth Street Church of Christ, because he constantly criticized her for “the way I walk, what I eat, everything.”
An argument the previous night over family finances and an Internet scam she apparently fell for pushed her to a point where she “snapped.”
The shot by Mary Winkler drove 77 steel pellets through the middle of her husband’s back, knocking him out of bed and to the floor.
Prosecutors Mike Dunavant and Walt Freeland said that, according to her statements, Matthew Winkler was still alive when his wife fled with the children.
The telephone nearby was disconnected which, they contend, prevented him from calling for help.
Mary was arrested 340 miles away in Orange Beach, Ala., about 24 hours after several church members discovered her husband’s body.
Defense attorneys Steve Farese and Leslie Ballin have indicated their defense will center on diminished capacity, that is, the inability to form the required state of mind to commit premeditated first-degree murder because of emotional distress.
Jurors also will be allowed to consider lesser offenses, such as second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless homicide.
A pool of 160 potential jurors summoned from McNairy County for the case have filled out lengthy questionnaires quizzing them on such things as their opinions of the case, their thoughts on the battered-wife syndrome and abusive relationships, and their worst experience as a child.
“The defense will have to humanize their client and convince the jury she is worthy of some compassion and mercy, and I suspect that whatever shortcomings her husband had, they’ll magnify those,” said veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor Jerry Easter of Memphis.
“It’s not a ‘Who-dunnit.’ It’s ‘Why did she do it, and what are you going to do about it?’ ”
Circuit Court Clerk Ronnie Brooks said this will be the first sequestered jury in the eight years he’s been in office and the first murder trial here in many years.
“I think we had one in the late ’90s,” he said, adding that General Sessions court cases are being moved to the old courthouse in town because of the anticipated crowds for the Winkler trial.
“We’re not used to this much profile. We’re going to be busy, at least for that first week.”
Finding a jury to hear the case is expected to take two to three days.
“I think there’s some mixed feelings about it, but people here are more perplexed than anything,” said Thomas Cauley of Selmer, director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “This is a small, God-fearing community, and we don’t have much violent crime.”
Still, he added, the town just 90 miles east of Memphis is growing accustomed to the attention and the television satellite trucks that have shown up for every pretrial hearing.
Town officials have even decided to have a hospitality tent for the media outside the justice center where the trial will be.
“It’s not really a pleasant situation,” Cauley said, “but I think everyone decided we just need to try to make the best of it and make people feel welcome.”
The public and media fascination with the case is simple, said one veteran newsman.
“Definitely the three young kids are a big factor, but at root the Winkler story soars because it flips the oldest cliche upside down – that a preacher’s family is Godly and never has problems,” said Bob Levey, a former columnist for The Washington Post who now holds the University of Memphis Hardin Chair of Excellence in Managerial Journalism.
“I think it’s the fascination with a family that proves yet again that things are never exactly as they seem to be, even in a family where the man is a man of God.
“Clearly, it’s the ‘Oh-wow’ factor of a preacher’s wife allegedly committing murder. Preacher’s wives are supposed to be long-suffering but silent. She was the first but not the second.”
The case before Circuit Court Judge J. Weber McCraw is expected to last about two weeks.
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