Was Justice Served?

updated 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The day had come for Mary Winkler to reclaim what was left of her family—for now, a Great Dane named Lady and a poodle mix, Lucy Lou. "She was so excited to see them again," says Kathy Thomsen, who was there to greet her longtime friend on Aug. 14, after Winkler, 33, was released from confinement for the March 2006 shotgun killing of her husband, Matthew. "She talked about wanting to remember the good times with Matthew and to go forward with her kids," says Thomsen, 52. "There are people everywhere who won't agree with this. But Mary is trying to go on with her life."

Less than 17 months after killing pastor Matthew Winkler, 31, in their Selmer, Tenn., home—and after serving 155 days in jail and 55 in a mental health facility—Winkler will remain on probation for two and a half years but is otherwise free to resume her life. Legal experts say it's highly unusual for someone who killed a spouse to be freed after such a brief stay in jail. But after hearing testimony that Winkler shot her husband because he had abused her—physically, mentally and sexually—for many years, the jury declined to find her guilty of first degree murder, instead choosing the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. Plus the judge sentenced her to three years instead of the maximum six.

Still, Matthew's friends and family are horrified. "Nobody can believe it; everyone's in shock," says Beverly Ashby, a close friend of Matthew's parents. "There are women still in prison for stabbing their husbands and not even killing them. It's like the jury didn't even try."

Matthew's inner circle is also bracing for the next battle—the fight for Winkler's three young daughters: Patricia, 9, Allie, 7, and Brianna, 2. The girls are now in the custody of Matthew's parents, Daniel, 55, a preacher, and Diane, 56. The children only saw their mother twice after her arrest, and not at all since January, when the Winklers cut off all contact between the girls and Mary (the Winklers testified in court that they did so after Mary told Patricia she didn't kill Matthew). Both Matthew's parents and Winkler have filed suits seeking full custody, and the matter will soon be heard in a Tennessee court. "Her life is on hold until she gets with them," says Thomsen. "She already has car seats in the back of [her Honda] for the girls. I don't think she will ever give up the fight for her children."

Can Winkler win back custody of her daughters after killing their father while they were in the house? Tennessee law doesn't rule out the possibility, and in light of her claim that she had been abused by her husband, some experts give her a chance. "She's a sympathetic person," says Nashville family attorney Rose Palermo. "If she comes across in the custody proceedings the way she did in the criminal case, I wouldn't bet against her."

Winkler—who spent nearly two months in a Tennessee mental health facility receiving one-on-one counseling and who now seems less depressed "and more like Mary," says a close friend—is staying in Thomsen's home in McMinnville, Tenn., in a bedroom full of photos of Winkler with her children and Matthew. "It's hard for people to understand, but she loved Matthew," says Thomsen. "Something just happened. We all have our breaking point." In September, Winkler plans to return to the dry cleaning store where she worked while out on bail last year. If she is reunited with her children, she also hopes to move into a farmhouse near McMinnville that a friend is letting her use for as long as she wants. "She'll try to go back to school to finish her degree," says Thomsen. "She said, 'I'm the sole supporter of my children now and I've got to take care of them.'"

Unlike Winkler's friends in McMinnville, where she and Matthew lived before moving to Selmer in 2004, and where she has been embraced since her release, Matthew's parents aren't likely to forgive her quite so quickly. "You have accused [Matthew] of being a monster, and for everything you accused there never was proof," Matthew's anguished mother, Diane, testified at Winkler's sentencing in June. "You broke your girls' heart by the decision you made." Winkler, says Thomsen, understands how the girls' grandparents feel and "never says a bad word about them. She just says we need to pray for them." In fact, Winkler would like to think that down the road Matthew's parents will somehow be part of her life again—part of the family that she lost and is now trying to rebuild. "She is hopeful that she will get her babies," says a close friend, "and that she can live as normally as the situation will allow."

From Our Partners