HUNTINGDON, Tenn. (AP) — Mary Winkler convinced a jury that she was physically and emotionally abused by her preacher husband before she fatally shot him. 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.
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.
Now free 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 because she doesn’t 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 Dr. Ablow, the former host of a syndicated TV show bearing his name.
Grandparents Dan and Diane Winkler contend that Winkler is an unfit mother and that the children have a better chance at a normal life with them.
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.
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,’ ” Mr. Boyer said. “But this woman has got a lot of convincing to do.”