April 30, 2007 12:00 PM

In a calmly professional tone, psychologist Lynne Zager detailed for the court what Mary Winkler told her about the morning of March 22, 2006. Daughter Breanna, 1, Winkler had said, was crying, and husband Matthew was upset that the baby monitor was turned off. “He was upset whatever [Mary] did,” Zager added. Matthew went into Breanna’s room and put his hand over the baby’s nose and mouth to stop the crying. Because Breanna had been a preemie with breathing problems, Mary grew fearful. When Matthew went back to bed, Mary settled the baby, then went into the kitchen. “At some point as she was making coffee,” Zager said, “she stopped.”

Thus began what Zager described as a “dissociative episode,” a condition when people “sort of stay outside themselves.” Hired by the defense team to evaluate Winkler after she fatally shot her minister husband, Zagar said that Mary has been suffering episodes since age 13. On this morning, Mary “remembered the sound of shooting,” Zager said, though “she had no recollection of it.” Was Mary capable of forming the intent to commit a crime? asked defense attorney Leslie Ballin. “I don’t believe so,” Zager replied.

Mary’s attorneys had hinted at bombshells during opening statements on April 12, and Zager didn’t disappoint as questions about victimhood moved to center stage in the Selmer, Tenn., courtroom. Certainly her testimony cast a new light on Matthew, whom prosecutors had painted as a devoted husband, father and preacher, gunned down by a panicked wife after she made a mess of their family finances with a check-kiting scam. Zager said that Matthew was verbally, physically, emotionally and sexually “inappropriate” to his wife. “What she described was her husband asking to do things that she wasn’t comfortable doing sexually,” Zager said. “He had pornographic pictures and movies, things of that nature, he wanted her to watch with him. She wasn’t comfortable with that.” He also insisted on a sex act “that was not something she cared to do,” Zager added.

A day earlier the prosecution had made jurors aware of three younger victims when they called the Winklers’ 9-year-old daughter to the stand. “Patricia Winkler,” she said, when asked her name, then burst into sobs. Quickly regaining her composure, Patricia, her long brown bangs swept to the side of her face, responded calmly to a prosecutor’s questions. “I heard this big, like, boom, and it sounded like someone fell on the ground,” she said. Finding the door to her parents’ bedroom open, she walked in. “Daddy was facedown on the ground,” she testified. “He was just groaning.” Her mother saw her, she said, and closed the door.

Throughout Patricia’s testimony, Mary’s eyes never left her daughter’s face. Since being charged with first-degree murder, Winkler, 33, has seen her daughters—Patricia, Mary Alice, 7, and Breanna, now 2—just twice, most recently last September. On cross-examination, defense attorney Steve Farese sought to convince jurors that Mary’s in-laws are deliberately turning her girls against her. “Why did y’all not get to see your mom anymore?” he asked.

“I didn’t want to see her,” Patricia replied. Why was that? Farese prodded. “Well, I mean, I still love her,” the little girl answered and then with a pained yelp burst into fresh tears.

Still it was the talk of abuse that got the most attention. Vague hints of it echo through the almost hour-long statement that Mary gave to Alabama police the day after she shot Matthew. Played in its entirety for the jury, the audiotape begins with Mary denying any problems in her marriage. Eventually, though, she says, “I just never know what’s coming next. I think we’re having a good day, and then bam.” Protective of her husband (“I don’t want him smeared”), Mary shows a few flashes of defiance (“I have nerve now and I have self-esteem, so my ugly came out”), but concludes on a note of self-blame: “I never spoke up. It’s a two-way thing. I just kept it all inside.”

Outside the courtroom in Selmer, many of the rural town’s 4,600 residents watched gavel-to-gavel coverage on a local cable station. Though few people spoke openly of anything but Christian forgiveness, several women, when offered anonymity, voiced sympathy for Mary. “That’s classic battered wife syndrome or whatever you call it,” one woman said, after hearing the audiotape. “She was his punching bag.” Some of Matthew’s earlier congregants in McMinnville have been helping Mary with living expenses, a choice that is stirring friction in his old church. “What harm was it to try to comfort her,” says one contributor. “Maybe she will go to jail thinking, ‘These people love me.'”

Through it all Winkler, wearing both a cross and her wedding ring, appeared confident. Yet her attorneys did not know if she would decide to take the stand. “Unless she testifies, no one will know what happened behind closed doors,” says attorney Leslie Ballin. “There is a story to tell.”

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