Peeling Back Layers of Truth in the Bernie Case

Maybe you saw the 2011 movie Bernie by Richard Linklater, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, or maybe you remember the story.

Bernie Tiede was the real-life funeral home worker who befriended widows of Carthage, an East Texas town of some 7,000 persons about 140 miles southeast of Dallas, 43 miles from the Louisiana state line. In 1999 Tiede was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the 1996 murder of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, found frozen in her own household deep-freeze a year after Tiede had shot her in the back with a rifle.

The real Bernie is now suddenly out of prison, awaiting a decision by an appeals court on a resentencing. He will remain free if the court resentences him to time already served.

On May 12 shortly after Tiede was released, Shanna Nugent, an attorney who is Marjorie Nugent's granddaughter, lashed out at Linklater in a post on the Texas Tribune. She blamed him personally, also his "Hollywood friends" and the "influence of Hollywood storytelling" for Tiede's unjust release. Nugent wrote: "Linklater, Tiede's celebrity advocate, calls his victory over the Texas criminal justice system a 'dream.' We call it a nightmare."

I tried to reach Shanna Nugent for an interview, but she did not respond. I understand her grief, but at the core of her complaint I find an unlikely assumption — that people in East Texas, or anywhere in Texas, would ever do anything Hollywood wanted them to.

Before Tiede's trial, many top Texas journalism hands trekked to the steamy Piney Woods to get the story. One of the best renderings was by Texas Monthly's Skip Hollandsworth, a writer gifted with an ear for voice. His piece served as the basis for Linklater's screenplay, which Hollandsworth co-wrote.

Hollandsworth says now he's confident his story had zero effect on the outcome of the trial: "The story came out of walking into Daddy Sam's barbecue and listening to people berate [District Attorney] Danny Buck [Davidson] for wanting to send Bernie away for life."

Hollandsworth found a town full of people yearning "to give Bernie a second chance because he's a good Christian and he's done a lot for this town and Mrs. Nugent hasn't. You could just see it building."

Davidson, the district attorney, referred to locally as Danny Buck, thinks he knows what all of those visiting scholars expected the outcome to be. "I was under the impression they went down there thinking they were going to write a story about a guy that killed a woman that nobody liked and nothing happened to him or he just got a slap on the wrist."

But Danny Buck had a surprise up his sleeve. In an unusual move, Davidson, the prosecutor, asked for a change of venue and got the trial moved to a neighboring county, where a jury came down hard on Tiede. Looking back on it, Davidson thinks the outcome was a shock to the visiting media. "I think they were just as surprised as Tiede that he got a life sentence."

But then the movie came out, portraying Tiede as a goody-two-shoes choir-singer, sort of, and Marjorie Nugent as a mean old lady, sort of. Or did it? My own opinion is that Hollandsworth's unfailing ear coupled with Linklater's brilliant moviemaking caught and relayed much more than the surface story.

Take the issue of the freezer, for example. Marjorie Nugent was rich. By the time he killed her, Tiede had already embezzled or talked her out of enough money to buy himself multiple airplanes, which he was licensed to fly.

One of the better lines Hollandsworth collected in his reporting was from a widow who told him matter-of-factly what she thought Bernie should have done with Marjorie Nugent instead of plunking her in the freezer: "I don't understand why Bernie didn't put her in one of his little airplanes," she said, "and fly her over the Gulf of Mexico and kick her out."

Hollandsworth paraphrased Tiede's sister, who said she had wondered about the freezer, as well. She said Tiede told her, "He couldn't be so cruel as to abandon Mrs. Nugent."

From Hollandsworth's piece:

"You couldn't be so cruel?" the astonished sister asked. "Bernie, what were you going to do?"

In a very soft voice, Bernie said, "I wanted to give Mrs. Nugent a proper burial. You know, everyone needs a proper burial."

OK, that's the ka-ching money line in his story, the spine-tingle, the crashing dissonance in the hymn where everybody paying attention in the audience thinks something fairly inarticulate like, "son of a bitch."

Especially in a movie, which people tend to view as fiction at least while they are watching, anomalous lines like that might fall on an audience's ear as the clever inventions of writers. But Tiede was real. He killed a real person.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze