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Mary Winkler walks into McNairy County Court in Selmer, Tenn., for her first-degree murder trial Monday.
AP photo by Russell Ingle
Mary Winkler walks into McNairy County Court in Selmer, Tenn., for her first-degree murder trial Monday.

Winkler has
date in court

Jury selection could
take as long as a week

By Beth Rucker
Associated Press Writer

SELMER, Tenn. — The preacher's wife everyone described as quiet and unassuming walked into court with her lawyers Monday for the start of her murder trial in the shotgun killing of her husband in their church parsonage.

Mary Winkler, 33, was met by a crowd of photographers and TV cameras as she arrived for the start of jury selection.

Authorities said Matthew Winkler, 31, formerly of Decatur, minister at the Fourth Street Church of Christ in this small western Tennessee town, was struck by a single blast on March 22, 2006. His wife was arrested a day later in Orange Beach, some 340 miles from Selmer, with their three young daughters.

About 160 potential jurors arrived at the tiny courtroom in Selmer, and lawyers started asked them in small groups whether they knew the Winklers or had heard about the case on TV or in the newspaper.

They managed to quiz only 14 potential jurors Monday, and court officials said the jury selection process could take up to a week. The entire trial could take several weeks.

Domestic abuse issue?

Questions from the defense attorneys suggest that domestic abuse could become an issue in the trial. Mary Winkler's father, Clark Freeman of Knoxville, has said his daughter might have been physically abused.

Defense attorney Leslie Ballin asked the jurors if they had ever visited shelters for battered women. "Can emotional abuse be as damaging as physical abuse?" he asked. "Have you ever talked to someone who didn't listen?"

"Have you ever wondered why someone would stay in an abusive relationship?" he asked.

Police say Mary Winkler has admitted shooting her husband, and that it had something to do with his constant criticism.

"It was just building up to this point," Winkler said, according to a statement taken by Alabama police. "I was just tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and snapped."

If convicted, Winkler would be sentenced to life in prison with parole possible after 51 years.

While her attorneys have never directly said that she shot her husband, they have indicated their defense would be based on "how and why" the crime happened, rather than what happened, as Ballin told potential jurors.

Lawyers also asked potential jurors about their religious affiliation and familiarity with firearms.

The Winklers both grew up in Churches of Christ, which are fairly common in Tennessee and other Southern states. These strict, conservative churches believe the Bible should be interpreted literally and that baptism by immersion in water is necessary for salvation. They stand out from other conservative Southern churches by their insistence on forbidding instrumental music during services.

"Would all of y'all agree that a minister and a minister's wife and family live in a fish bowl?" Farese asked, referring to the high visibility of a religious leader's family in a congregation.

The attorneys asked potential jurors if they owned firearms, had taken gun safety courses or were generally aware of how they worked.

"Is it possible to unintentionally fire or discharge a firearm?" Farese asked seven of the potential jurors interviewed Monday.

Matthew Winkler was hired in February 2005 at the 200-member church in Selmer, a town of about 4,500 people some 80 miles east of Memphis. The congregation quickly came to love his by-the-book sermons and his seemingly devoted wife, who was a substitute teacher at an elementary school.

Mary and Matthew Winkler were married in 1996. They had met at Freed-Hardeman University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Henderson where Matthew's father was an adjunct professor. Mary took education classes, and Matthew took Bible classes. Neither graduated.

They had three young daughters — ages 9, 7 and 2 at the time of the shooting. Matthew Winkler's parents, Dan and Diane Winkler of Huntingdon, now have custody of the girls, and they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mary Winkler.

While Winkler has been found competent to stand trial, her attorneys have indicated they may argue that she lacked the required state of mind to commit premeditated first-degree murder.

Her lawyers have also said the Winklers were victimized by 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 processing expenses. No one has said how much money the Winklers might have lost, or what role if any the financial strain might have played in the shooting.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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