Mary Winkler, the Tennessee woman who shot her minister husband to death while he slept, was released back into society this week after serving just 67 days, most of it in a prison hospital.
Did she get away with murder? Many think she did, including two TODAY experts, former judge and prosecutor Jeanine Pirro, and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow.
“You can’t give Mary Winkler, in my opinion, any kind of clean bill of health that she won’t be violent in the future,” Ablow told TODAY host Meredith Vieira on Thursday.
“I think it sends a terrible message about the criminal justice system, that you can commit a homicide and literally get away with it,” added Pirro.
Winkler admitting shooting her husband, Matthew, with a 12-gauge shotgun on the night of March 22, 2006, in their parsonage home in Selmer, Tenn.
She then packed her three young daughters, ages 8, 6 and 1, in the family car and drove to Alabama, where she was taken into custody the following day.
During her trial in April, she claimed that she had been abused by her husband, with whom she had appeared to have an ideal marriage. She claimed not to remember getting the shotgun from a closet in their bedroom nor discharging it.
Winkler said that her husband, mortally wounded, rolled off the bed and asked her, “Why?” She said she told him she was sorry.
She was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, but on April 19, after eight hours of deliberation, the jury found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter. On June 8, she was sentenced to 210 days in prison, with credit given for 143 days she had spent in jail the previous year before making bail. The judge allowed her to spend 60 of the remaining 67 days of her sentence in a mental health facility.
“Justice was definitely not served here,” Pirro told Vieira. “You had a preacher, who by all accounts was loved in his community, who was shot in the back while he slept. You have a woman who says she was abused with no history, no shred of evidence.”
Matthew Winkler was a minister at the Fourth Street Church of Christ, a denomination that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, including Saint Paul’s teaching that women should be submissive to their husbands.
Mary Winkler’s attorneys claimed that she was beaten by her husband. She said at her trial that he made her watch pornographic videos and wear “slutty” outfits for sex. She said he was controlling and criticized her constantly.
At the time of the killing, the couple had been having arguments about their finances. Prosecutors introduced evidence that Mary Winkler had gotten involved in an online Nigerian check-kiting fraud and had written checks for thousands of dollars. That, the prosecution argued, was the real source of the friction in the marriage.
But the defense said there had been continuing abuse.
“What’s interesting, Meredith, at the trial, she took out a pair of high heels and she said, ‘This is how I was abused. He made me wear these heels when we were intimate with each other,’” Pirro said. “That’s not abuse. This is ridiculous.”
‘Anything can happen’
If the sentence, to Pirro, was ridiculous, the treatment she received, to Ablow, was incomplete.
“In 60 days you can start somebody on a medicine if you felt that he or she was depressed,” he said. “You can see the results of that medication kicking in. You might be able to do psychological testing to see if there’s any underlying delusion or fixed and false belief like paranoia. What you can’t do, you can’t predict the future with anything like certainty.”
While she was out on bail awaiting trial, Winkler worked at a dry cleaner in McMinnville, Tenn. Her employer has said he would welcome her back. Her husband’s parents, Dan and Diane Winkler, have had custody of her three children since her arrest. The grandparents are seeking permanent custody, which Mary Winkler is opposing.
“What do you think is next for her?” Vieira asked Ablow.
“What I would hope is next for her is some sort of insight and healing that would help her understand that this violence is still somewhere potentially inside her,” Ablow replied. “This hasn’t been resolved. We don’t have a good explanation for why Mary Winkler killed her husband.
“What do I know will happen? I think that’s a black box. Anything could happen.”