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Backed by Austin Filmmaker, Murderer 'Bernie' Will Be Freed From Prison Early

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Texas Tribune
Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede exited the Panola County Court building after his hearing in February in Carthage. His attorney filed new evidence that could affect his punishment term. He has been serving time since 1997 for the murder of Marjorie Nugent.

On Tuesday, more than 17 years after Bernie Tiede shot 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back and tucked her body under potpies in a deep freezer, a judge released him on bond.

But his release comes with conditions — that he live in the Austin garage apartment of his moviemaking benefactor, Richard Linklater, and receive counseling for sexual abuse.

“I’m not telling you I like it, but there’s not much I can do about it now,” said Danny Buck Davidson, the Panola County district attorney who oversaw Tiede’s prosecution.

In an affidavit Davidson planned to file with the court, he said he agreed that based on new evidence about Tiede's youth, his life sentence should be reduced.

Tiede and his crime became famous after the release of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie, a dark comedy about the 1996 shooting, for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Tiede's lawyers now argue that his sentence should be reduced after psychiatrists discovered new evidence that he was repeatedly sexually abused from ages 12 to 18. Had jurors known about the abuse, the lawyers contend in court pleadings, they would have handed down a lighter sentence. On Tuesday, state district Judge Diane DeVasto heard testimony from psychiatrists who have evaluated Tiede, and from Linklater, who has agreed to allow the former funeral director to live with him in Austin, among others.

Linklater could not be reached for comment. Tiede's lawyer, Jodi Cole, declined to comment and referred a reporter to court documents in the case. 

Ryan Gravatt, a spokesman for the Nugent family, said Tiede should stay behind bars for the cold-blooded killing.

“He confessed to her murder and his confession was admitted in his trial,” Gravatt said. “A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, where he should remain.”

Tiede and Nugent met at Hawthorn Funeral Home, where he was the assistant director. By 1993, Tiede had left his job to work with Nugent full time as her business manager and companion. They shopped together, attended musicals and traveled.

In November 1996, at age 38, Tiede lost patience with Nugent, who had a reputation around the small town of Carthage for being ornery, and shot her. Police found her body months later in the freezer at her home. At the high-profile trial, Davidson painted Tiede as a gold-digger who enjoyed spending Nugent’s fortune and shot her because he became weary of her demands.

After the 2011 film, new lawyers signed on with Tiede to assist in his appeals. As they investigated the case, they noticed Tiede had a small collection of self-help books for victims of sexual abuse. When pressed by a counselor, Tiede admitted that he had been abused — something he had not told his lawyers during the 1999 trial.

Richard Pesikoff, a psychiatrist hired by Tiede’s lawyers, evaluated him and concluded that the shooting was the result of a “dissociative experience” brought on when Nugent's allegedly abusive behavior eroded Tiede's ability to suppress his emotions. Tiede was able to go on for months after the murder as if nothing had happened because, as a closeted gay man in a tiny East Texas town, he had become accustomed to repressing parts of himself that others might reject, Pesikoff wrote in his report. 

“Through counseling, Mr. Tiede can address his past abusive experiences and develop appropriate coping skills that would allow him to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships,” Pesikoff wrote.

Psychiatrist Edward Gripon, whom Davidson had hired to examine Tiede for the state in 1999, came to the same conclusion after learning of the abuse. Gripon said that if he had known of the evidence at Tiede’s trial, he would have concluded that he had experienced a “dissociative episode.” 

With his own expert agreeing that Tiede was not a continuing danger to society and that the crime was one of sudden passion, Davidson said he was left with little option but to agree with defense lawyers. The maximum sentence for a murder born of sudden passion is 20 years. Had Tiede received that sentence in 1999, he would likely already be out of prison, the prosecutor said.

Davidson expected Tiede to be released on bond Tuesday under the condition that he live in Austin with Linklater and that he seek psychological help to cope with the abuse. Tiede will remain under the conditions of the bond until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, approves the reduced sentence.

Living in Austin, a community that is larger and more liberal than Carthage, will be good for Tiede, Davidson said. Many in the town that once embraced Tiede as a friendly, churchgoing bachelor are now vehemently opposed to his release. The prosecutor said he expects Tiede’s release to be wildly unpopular among people who live in Carthage.

“People here don’t want him walking the streets of Carthage,” he said. “He’s going to become integrated into the gay community in Austin. Then he won’t have to live the closeted life of a gay person.”

Disclosure: Richard Linklater is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

--by Brandi Grissom with The Texas Tribune

This story is provided by The Texas Tribune.