Can Mary Winkler Get Her Kids Back?

Mary Winkler may regain custody of her kids, even though she killed their dad.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:41 AM

Sept. 12, 2007 — -- Mary Winkler may be able to regain custody of her three daughters even though she shot and killed the girls' father last year, Tennessee family law attorneys told ABC News.

Winkler, who was convicted in April of killing her husband, is locked in a bitter, public custody battle with her former in-laws, who have had temporary custody of Winkler's three children since her arrest. They want to end Winkler's parental rights and adopt the girls.

Tennessee state law allows judges to end the parental rights of a parent who is convicted of killing the other parent. But, lawyers said, it's still not clear that the girls' grandparents, Dan and Diane Winkler, will succeed. Tennessee law favors the rights of biological parents, and Mary Winkler may be able to convince a judge that she's still fit to be a mother.

"It looks like she has the deck stacked against her, but I wouldn't count her out," said Rose Palermo, a Memphis family law attorney. "She's such a sympathetic character. She's the mother of these three children, and there's no evidence she's ever physically abused them."

To gain permanent custody of the girls, Dan and Diane Winkler need to show that Mary Winkler poses a substantial threat of harm to her children and that ending her parental rights is in the best interests of her children, lawyers said. That relatively loose legal standard will leave much to the discretion of the judge hearing the case, and experts expect psychologists to testify on behalf of both Winkler and her former in-laws.

"It's going to be a real close call," said Miles Mason, a family law attorney in Memphis. "I think it will go to the Tennessee Supreme Court. I think this is round one of a very long and painful process for these children."

In an interview that aired Wednesday on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Winkler said she is a different person today than she was in March 2006, when she shot and killed her husband, the Rev. Michael Winkler.

"I communicate better," she said. "I speak up when there's something I don't like."