Image: The Winkler family
AP file
Mary Winkler, middle, was convicted of fatally shooting her husband, whom she accused of abuse. After her arrest, the Winklers' three children were sent to live with their paternal grandparents.
updated 9/24/2007 7:27:05 PM ET 2007-09-24T23:27:05

Mary Winkler convinced a jury she was physically and emotionally abused by her preacher husband before she shot him to death. Now, after a short jail sentence, she is trying to persuade the courts to let her have her children back.

The children’s paternal grandparents are trying to have Winkler stripped of her rights as a parent so they can adopt the three girls, ages 2, 8 and 10.

It is sure to be a bitter and difficult custody battle, and one with little precedent in Tennessee.

Termination of parental rights is allowed if one parent “wrongfully” kills the other. But that has been part of state law for only a few years.

Usually, the surviving parent “is incarcerated for such a long time that the parent cannot raise the children. But we don’t have that here,” said Christina Zawisza, a lawyer with the University of Memphis Child Advocacy Clinic.

Winkler’s husband, Matthew, 31, was killed with a shotgun blast to the back in March 2006 at his Church of Christ parsonage in Selmer, a small town about 80 miles east of Memphis. Mary Winkler went to jail and the couple’s children moved in with their father’s parents in the small town of Huntingdon.

Mother says she was abused
Winkler, 33, was tried on a murder charge, but a jury found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter after she testified about years of abuse. Including jail time awaiting trial, she spent just seven months in custody, with two months served in a mental facility being treated for post traumatic stress disorder.

Free now on probation, Winkler wants the children back.

“We can begin healing together,” she told a judge who granted supervised visits with the children to begin Saturday.

“She paid her debt to society. You can’t punish her again by taking away her kids,” said Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania lawyer who specializes in child custody and family law but has no connection to the Winkler case. “Parents always have priority over grandparents.”

But Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist hired by the grandparents, described Winkler as a danger to herself and her children, particularly since she claims not to remember getting the shotgun out of a bedroom closet and pulling the trigger.

“We’re talking about something that has to be watched for decades,” said Ablow, the former host of a syndicated TV show bearing his name.

Grandparents Dan and Diane Winkler contend Winkler is an unfit mother and the children have a better chance at a normal life with them.

But Gold-Bikin said Winkler’s manslaughter conviction shows the jury believed her testimony about domestic abuse. Among other things, Winkler claimed she was forced to submit to sex acts she considered unnatural.

“Should we take these children away from a loving mother and give them to somebody who hates her?” Gold-Bikin said. “Here is a little backwoods woman married to a very popular preacher and her entire self-worth has been undermined. She’s been made to parade around in high heels and no clothes, to do things she considers perverted. And she’s got nobody to talk to because nobody is going to believe her.”

No trial date is set on the termination petition.

Judge forbids unsupervised visitation
At a hearing last week, Winkler asked for private visits with the children, but Judge Ron Harmon refused after listening to testimony on her mental health and the youngsters’ mixed feelings about her, only granting her the supervised visits.

Dan Winkler, who is also a Church of Christ minister, said the older girls had nightmares after talking with their mother on the telephone.

Bruce Boyer, a child-law specialist with Loyola University in Chicago, said Winkler has a fight on her hands.

“I would never say to anybody, ‘You don’t even get a chance to convince me that you could still be a good parent,”’ Boyer said, “but this woman has got a lot of convincing to do.”

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