Apparently my destiny is to spend the rest of my life writing about Tod Robberson, an editorial writer for the The Dallas Morning News with whom I disagree about every single thing on the face of the Earth. In my column in the print edition this week, I disagree with him about a car wash. For today's installment, I would like to disagree with him, if you will allow me, about a movie.
The movie is Bernie, a 2011 film directed by Richard Linklater of Austin and co-written by Linklater and Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth of Dallas, based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a 38-year-old East Texas embalmer convicted of befriending, then murdering 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a rich widow.
Robberson has a blog piece up today on the Morning News website reminding us of his continuing outrage over the recent release of the real-life Tiede from real-life prison, an event that Robberson blames entirely on the movie:
"Tiede's lawyer and Linklater went before a judge several weeks ago and convinced the judge to free Tiede from prison while his life sentence is being reviewed. Everybody in this case, including prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson -- whose job is to be an advocate for the people, not Tiede -- seems to have been blinded by the star quality of this case. They appear to have relied not on the facts of the case itself but on Linklater's dramatization."
Here's what is true in what Robberson writes: After serving 16 years of a life sentence, Tiede, now 55, was released last May when a judge ruled that new evidence entitled him to a re-sentencing hearing at which it was likely he would be permanently released. Linklater did appear in court. Davidson, the district attorney, also appeared and did endorse a reduced sentence.
Also true: Had a popular movie not been made about Tiede, he would still be in prison where he would remain until old age or death.
Here is what is not true in what Robberson writes: It absolutely is not true that Hollywood glamour, star power or the movie's sympathetic portrayal of Tiede had anything to do with Tiede being released, nor is it true that Davidson spoke in favor of a reduced sentence because of the movie. None of that is what really happened.
I explained all of this in a column a couple weeks ago. As a general rule, always trust Schutze, never trust Robberson. You'll come out ahead.
The movie played a role in Tiede's release, because a lawyer who watched the movie guessed there was more to his history than the movie revealed. The lawyer wound up uncovering a history of severe childhood sexual abuse in Tiede's past at the hands of an uncle. That history was corroborated by multiple forms of evidence. The lawyer engaged a psychiatrist who examined Tiede and found that he was permanently damaged psychologically by the abuse. The specific form of damage the psychiatrist found fell within definitions in Texas law that would have ruled out a life sentence, had the judge at Tiede's murder trial known of the abuse and resulting condition.
Far from passively accepting any of this new evidence, Davidson reached out to the psychiatrist he had used in the original murder trial to knock down an insanity plea. That psychiatrist agreed to examine Tiede on the new evidence as well. Davidson told me he was shocked -- "tee-totally shocked" -- when the second psychiatrist, whom he had regarded as his own expert, agreed with the first one and said he, too, found in Tiede the condition that would have ruled out a life sentence.
As a human being and as a lifelong law enforcement officer, Davidson told me he is personally skeptical of most psychiatric excuses for evil, and I didn't get the impression he is totally sold on this one at all. But as a lawyer and officer of the court, he had to deal with what the law says. He told me his view was that under the applicable laws and under current standards and practice for early release, it is clear Tiede would be a free man by now if the court had known of the abuse in '99 when he was tried.
My impression from an hour-plus conversation was that Davidson is no fan of Bernie Tiede. He hinted darkly that if the Tiede case must be tried again from the bottom up -- a decision not yet made by the court -- a whole lot more evidence will come to the fore that nobody on any side of the story will find appetizing.
Robberson's empathy for the family of the victim is by no means misplaced. It's true that media and popular culture give short shrift to the wide concentric rings of pain that emanate forever from a crime like this to haunt undeserving survivors, probably including Tiede's own family, as well.
But this case is being driven by evidence and law. It's just not true to say Tiede got out of jail because people liked the movie, and it's deeply unfair to portray Davidson as some kind of silly fool gobsmacked by stardust. He's a lawyer and a lawman who's going by the law.
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