On Tuesday, some 18 years after shooting 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back and stuffing her body in a deep freezer, and three years after Jack Black played him in the Hollywood retelling, Bernie Tiede walked from a Carthage courtroom a free man.
The former mortician, now 55, had been serving a life sentence for the murder. But after appellate lawyers presented new evidence that Tiede had been sexually abused as a child, and after Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson agreed to a lighter sentence, state District Judge Diane DeVasto ordered his release, so long as he receives sexual abuse counseling and lives in the garage apartment of Bernie director and Austin resident Richard Linklater.
Dallas attorney Shanna Nugent, Marjorie's granddaughter, learned of Tiede's release through her mother, who had heard of the decision on the radio.
"This is very shocking to me," says Nugent, who was preparing to graduate from college at the time of the murder and is now an attorney in Dallas. "I've kind of never heard of this happening before. We went through a whole three-week trial. He had a whole defense. He never brought any of this (his history of sexual abuse) up. From what I can tell, there's no evidence that it occurred, and I'm not sure it lessens his crime at all."
To Shanna Nugent and her family, Tiede is a murderer who finagled his way into an old widow's will. then killed her in cold blood. Period.
She blames the 2011 film for clouding that picture, pushing a narrative in which Tiede is a friendly and generally upstanding citizen who snapped because Nugent is an insufferable harpy who kinda sorta had it coming.
"The movie is just the murderer's defense at trial to shooting an 80-year-old woman four times in the back at close range," she says. "I think for us personally, you know, all I can say is I constantly sit there and think about my grandmother. She's a sweet little old woman. ... I miss all the things I don't get to do with her."
That's all gotten drowned out in the flood of sympathy for Tiede that's followed the film's release. New lawyers signed on to assist with Tiede's appeals. They, in turn, hired psychiatrist Richard Pesikoff, who, according to the Texas Tribune, concluded the shooting resulted from a "dissociative experience" in which years of repressed emotions -- over his childhood sexual abuse and life as a closeted gay man in a small conservative town -- momentarily overcame his typical reserve. Edward Gripon, the psychiatrist who testified for the state at the original trial, eventually agreed.
Had Tiede not been the subject of a critically acclaimed film, Shanna Nugent is convinced he'd still be in prison today, which is where she thinks he should be.
"It really feels like to me Hollywood has taken over the Texas criminal justice system."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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