IMAGE: Mary Winkler
Russell Ingle  /  AP
Mary Winkler talks in court Thursday with her attorney, Steve Farese, in Selmer, Tenn.
updated 4/12/2007 3:48:27 PM ET 2007-04-12T19:48:27

A preacher's wife was trying to protect her young daughter from her abusive husband when she pointed a shotgun and accidentally shot him, her attorney said in opening statements Thursday.

Mary Winkler only intended to hold her husband at gunpoint to force him to talk about his personal problems after an incident involving their 1-year-old daughter, Breanna, defense attorney Steve Farese said.

"The morning he did what he did to Breanna, she was going to get his attention — with the very things he had always threatened her with," Farese said. He said Matthew Winkler had threatened his wife with a gun many times.

But a prosecutor said that after Mary Winkler was arrested she told police her husband was "a mighty fine person."

"The state will give you evidence to show that this was no accident and that this was a premeditated act because of things that had been happening of which Mary Winkler was in control," Assistant District Attorney Walt Freeland told the jury in his opening statement.

Freeland said bank managers were closing in on a check kiting scheme involving Mary Winkler and that she wanted to conceal it from her husband.

He said the jury would hear that Winkler, 33, was the one who controlled the family's finances and that she told investigators after the shooting "she guessed that her ugly just came out."

"'Why?' That was the last word spoken on this earth by Matthew Winkler," Freeland said. "And his last word was addressed to the person he thought he could trust, his wife."

'Nigerian scam' cited
Freeland said Mary Winkler was caught up in a swindle known as an advance-fee fraud, or the "Nigerian scam," in which victims are told that a sweepstakes prize or some other riches are waiting for them if they send in money to cover the processing expenses.

Bank managers told Mary Winkler that she needed to come to the bank with her husband to talk about some suspicious checks. They told her if she didn't come in by March 23 — one day after the shooting — the bank would turn the case over to the authorities, Freeland said.

The defense attorney said Mary Winkler was in charge of the finances only because she did everything her husband told her. He described her as a woman who had been abused verbally, emotionally and physically.

"Matthew and Mary Winkler had what appeared to everyone — those on the outside — to have had a marriage made in heaven. But behind closed doors it was a living hell," Farese told the jury. "She lived a life where she walked on eggshells."

Mary Winkler was her husband's "whipping boy," Farese said. "He didn't like the way she talked, he didn't like the way she walked.

"She wasn't perfect, and she had to be perfect to be a preacher's wife."

Farese said Mary Winkler did not know how to load or fire a shotgun, and that she was afraid he would grab it from her.

"The gun discharged," Farese said. "Was it an accident? She'll tell the truth as to what happened."

Mary Winkler, who has worn a cross around her neck in court every day this week, began crying when the prosecutor described how the shotgun blast ripped through Matthew Winkler's body.

The 31-year-old minister was found fatally wounded from a shotgun blast at the parsonage of his Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer in March 2006. His wife was arrested one day later some 340 miles away on the Alabama coast with their three young daughters.

Matthew Winkler came from a long line of Church of Christ ministers. The couple had met at Freed-Hardeman University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Henderson where Matthew's father was an adjunct professor, and they married in 1996.

Father: No forgiveness sought
Matthew's father, Dan Winkler, took the witness stand Thursday and said he talked to Mary Winkler after she had been arrested in Alabama. "I told her I wished I could take the handcuffs off and I could give her a big bear hug."

He said Christians have a duty to forgive, but Mary Winkler has never asked for forgiveness. Dan and his wife Diane Winkler now have custody of their three grandchildren, and they have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mary Winkler.

Churches of Christ do not consider themselves a denomination since every congregation is independently governed by a group of church elders. They generally believe the Bible should be interpreted literally and that baptism is essential for salvation.

The trial could last up to two weeks. The jury — including a Baptist minister and woman who said she had been a victim of domestic abuse — will spend that time sequestered in a small-town motel without television, radio or cell phones.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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