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Sympathy Verdict

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There were no public high fives. But there was also no mistaking the sense that the jury in Selmer, Tenn., that convicted Mary Winkler of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder in the shooting death of her husband, Matthew, had handed the preacher’s wife a most welcome gift. Friends who talked to her after the verdict, which hinged largely on allegations that Matthew had verbally and physically abused her, say she was upbeat over the prospect of drawing a sentence of only three to six years—and avoiding what might have been life. “She’s great,” says a friend who had Winkler, 33, over to her house when she was freed on bond to await formal sentencing on May 18. “She said the sun was shining brighter than it had in years.”

Not everyone saw things in that same light. Matthew’s supporters had a hard time swallowing the defense’s contention that Mary had simply snapped one day after years of torment. “None of us will ever know what the whole truth was,” says John Foote, a member of the Fourth Street Church of Christ, where Matthew was minister. “Matthew never got a chance to stand up and speak for himself.” But many residents in Selmer and McMinnville, where Mary lived while awaiting trial, seemed to approve of the verdict. At the Cleaners Express in McMinnville, where Mary worked in recent months, a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by with cards, cakes and even gifts of money. “It’s been unbelievable,” says co-owner Paul Pillow. “There’s been a tremendous outpouring of love and support.”

The turning point of the trial came April 18 when Winkler, the defense team’s last witness, took the stand for four hours. In a soft voice, and with her head often bowed, she told the court that over the years her husband had constantly belittled her looks and abilities, and on a number of occasions had physically assaulted her, including beating her with a belt. In a dramatic moment, she contended he had pressured her to do things she found distasteful, one of them being his desire to have her dress up in a wig and high heels when they had sex. She said that she had asked her husband for a divorce, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “It was just so bad, I just wanted out,” she testified. “He just would be so mean.” Said one of her friends: “It was awful to watch her—you could see that this was a beaten-down woman.”

That, combined with testimony from a psychologist who said Winkler was so distraught at the time of the shooting she did not remember pulling the trigger on the shotgun, apparently undercut the prosecution’s key witnesses, including the couple’s 9-year-old daughter Patricia. The girl had told of looking into the bedroom right after the shooting and seeing her mom, who by then had the presence of mind to close the door. “The defense did a fantastic job,” says Nashville attorney Edward Yarbrough. “The jury must have felt the provocation was longstanding.”

Some of the 10 women and two men on the jury did, at any rate. According to jury foreman Bill Berry, during deliberations, which went on for eight hours, half of the women on the panel were steadfastly in favor of letting Winkler off scot-free, while he and a couple of other jurors wanted to convict her of second-degree murder. “It was pretty divided,” says Berry of the wrangling that led to a compromise on voluntary manslaughter. “We had to agree on something, but it’s not what I wanted. I was pretty disappointed.”

It is unclear how much more prison time Winkler, who spent five months in jail awaiting the trial, will have to serve. The possibilities range from a year or more to none. Whatever happens, there is a good chance she will face a bruising custody battle over her three daughters—Patricia; Mary Alice, 7; and Breanna, 2. Matthew Winkler’s parents, Dan and Diane, who have been caring for the girls since the killing last year, offered no indications of their intentions, though they have already filed a wrongful death civil suit against Mary seeking $2 million in damages and allowed her only two visits with her daughters in the past year. After the verdict Winkler’s lawyer Steve Farese Sr. spoke of opening up “communication between Mary and the paternal grandparents and to get the children out of this cycle of constant upheaval over this terrible, tragic event.” Says a friend: “She wants those babies more than anything on earth.”

But what sort of relationship can she have with her daughters, especially Patricia, who testified against her and bears the scar of having seen her father dying on the floor? (Apparently harboring no ill will, Winkler said to a friend after her oldest’s day on the stand, “Patricia did real well, didn’t she?”) Those are the sorts of questions for which there may not be such tidy or upbeat answers. “There are no winners, not in this case,” said Farese after the verdict. “Not when there is a loss of life.”