For more than a decade, the so-called "battered woman syndrome" murder defense has gained traction in the courts and exonerated some abused women of homicide charges. Whether it will work for Mary Winkler remains a question. This morning in a Selmer, Tenn., court, a judge will deliver the answer.
When I first met Mary Winkler, she was working at a dry cleaning shop in McMinnville, Tenn. As I watched this petite 5-foot-2-inch woman diligently and politely wait on each customer with a smile, I wondered where her "ugly" (as she told the jury) came from.
Mary looked like a young, fun-loving schoolgirl more than a killer, and it's hard to even envision her picking up a 12-gauge shotgun that is almost as big as she is, balancing on pillows, shooting her preacher husband in the back while he slept and leaving him there to die.
That vision, however, became crystal clear at trial when I heard Mary tearfully testify about the fateful night when police believe she did exactly that. She also detailed a home life filled with years of fear and abuse.
'I Just … Snapped'
It was early in the morning on March 22, 2006. She remembered her 1-year-old daughter Brianna, who had difficulty breathing, waking up in the middle of the night crying. She remembered Matthew, her husband, literally kicking her out of bed to go deal with their weeping child. When Brianna did not stop crying, Mary said Matthew did what he often did: suffocated Brianna by pinching her nose and covering her mouth to try to get her to stop.
"I just got to a point and snapped," Mary told the police.
She even remembered holding the shotgun later that morning. But she insisted she had no recollection of what happened thereafter, until she saw her dying husband lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
She grabbed the shotgun, her three children and a pair of socks for Brianna and fled. She did not try to help her husband, call 911 or tell anyone what she did until she was caught by the police the next day more than 500 miles away from home. Mary said she took her children to the beach "just to be together."
According to Mary, this wasn't the first time that her husband had kicked her or tried to temporarily suffocate their children to get them to stop crying.
She detailed incidents where her supposedly God-loving minister husband kicked her and slapped her in the face, threatened her with the very same shotgun and told her he would sever her car's brake lines and cut her into a million pieces if she dared to speak back to him.
Behind closed doors, she said, he forced her to watch pornography, dress in lurid clothing and engage in sexual acts against her will. He also verbally abused her, saying that she was fat and that her hair was not right on numerous occasions.
Mary was a "punching bag," said defense attorney Steve Farese, until her husband began to abuse the children. Mary described an incident that left belt bruises on her children's legs so bad that they did not go to school, and she explained how Matthew would also pinch the nose and cover the mouth of their middle child, Mary Alice, to get her to stop crying.
Victim or Cold-Blooded Killer?
Her testimony contrasted sharply with the prosecution's portrayal of Mary as a calculated killer who shot her husband after he confronted her with a check-kiting scheme she had become involved in. Matthew, according to the prosecution, was a loving husband, caring father and beloved minister.
Because there was no dispute that Mary shot Matthew, the jury was faced with deciding first whether it believed Mary and, if so, whether the physical, verbal and sexual abuse excused her husband's murder.
At least one commentator believes that the abuse isn't enough. "It's just not justifiable to voluntarily marry someone and then kill him just because he was not a good person," said former federal prosecutor and University of Southern California law professor Jean Rosenbluth. "There must be self-defense or imminent harm to you or someone else to have a right to repel that threat."
The jurors — some of whom believe Mary committed first degree murder and others who think she should have been acquitted — compromised and ultimately found her guilty, not of being a cold-blooded killer but rather a woman provoked after years and years of abuse.
In legal terms, she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and instead of facing life behind bars she now faces at most three years to six years in prison with the possibility of probation. Many debate whether or not this is enough jail time because Mary killed her husband in his sleep.
"Three [years] to six years is a blip in her life and his is gone forever," Rosenbluth said.
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Geragos says he thinks the range is fair given the extenuating circumstances.
"The abuse, coupled with the mother's instinct to protect her children, is sufficient justification to impose a less severe sentence," Geragos said.
Lenore Walker, a psychologist who interviewed hundreds of victims of domestic abuse, first coined the term battered woman syndrome in the late 1970s. Since then the courts have begun to accept this growing body of research and have recognized that battered women who commit certain crimes may have various legal defenses available to them because of their dire circumstances.
Despite the research, however, expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome is specifically recognized in only 12 states, and is not on the books in Tennessee.
Mary's attorneys had to argue that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition many Vietnam veterans suffered from, in order to convince the jury that Mary's abusive situation rendered her unable to form the intent to commit first degree murder Despite battered woman syndrome's well-documented history, it has been an uphill battle to convince juries that such domestic abuse is a justifiable defense to murder -- until now.
Today, at Mary's sentencing hearing, we will learn what the judge thinks of this syndrome and whether or not Mary will be going to jail.