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.

On the night in 2011 when the movie premiered in Austin at an event sponsored by Texas Monthly, one person in the audience responded a different way. Jodi Calloway Cole, a young Austin criminal defense lawyer, looked at the several spine-tingling anomalous moments in Linklater's film when the Bernie character just did not add up at the bottom of the page, and apparently (she has not spoken to any press about her involvement) decided there was a bolt missing from Bernie's machinery. I tried to reach Cole, by the way, but had no luck.

Cole searched through a list of evidence seized from Tiede's home and found several books about surviving childhood sexual abuse. She went to the pen and interviewed Tiede, who reluctantly divulged a history of severe sexual abuse by an uncle during his adolescence. His claim was corroborated by independent evidence including testimony of another victim and evidence from the uncle himself.

Cole took this new evidence to two psychiatrists, one of whom interviewed Tiede in prison. That psychiatrist, Richard B. Pesikoff, found that the sexual trauma Tiede had suffered as a child and teenager conditioned him to go to a faraway place in his head when confronted with extreme trauma, then come back and forget or ignore whatever he had done.

Pesikoff said in his report: "The shooting of Mrs. Nugent, in the opinion of this examiner, represented for Mr. Tiede the condensation and symbolization of everything evil and abusive that he had experienced in his life."

Davidson told me he was not impressed at first. "I thought, 'Well hell, he's for hire. What do you expect a defense expert to say? Exactly what the defense wants him to say.'"

Davidson went back to the psychiatrist who had testified for the prosecution in the 1999 trial, Dr. Edward Gripon. Gripon agreed to interview Tiede, something he had not been able to do before the original trial. Gripon examined him for more than eight hours.

"Four days later [Gripon] calls me," Davidson said, "and he said, 'I agree with Pesikoff.' Well, the bombshell had hit, man. You talk about shocked, I was tee-totally shocked."

Davidson said he had to face the fact that Texas law at the time of Nugent's murder allowed a sentence of no more than 20 years in which there was "sudden passion arising from an adequate cause." Even if Davidson had won a 20-year max sentence in 1999, Tiede, now a model prisoner incarcerated continually for 17 years, would have been paroled somewhere between his 10th and 15th year behind bars. Davidson agreed with the judge who released Tiede that the matter probably had to be revisited by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where it rests now awaiting a decision.

Hollandsworth still thinks his original story changed nothing. But he says, "the fact is that not every defendant gets a filmmaker behind him. You can't take that away. Let's not be naive. If it wasn't for the movie, there would have been no movement to get Bernie out of prison."

But Davidson says the reaction of people in Carthage to the movie was not at all sympathetic, due in part to a generational shift.

"All these elderly folks that loved Bernie, they've all made one trip to the cemetery and have not come away from the cemetery," he said. "And the people that we have now have seen a movie where a young guy is kind of romancing an old woman and ends up killing her, and he goes on and continues partying and spends her money."

The reaction of this younger generation of Carthaginians, he said, has been harsh: "They think based on the movie that he ought to be in the penitentiary until he dies."

In both instances — Davidson's original tough prosecution of Tiede and now his agreement a decade and a half later that Tiede may have been over-sentenced — Davidson says he has managed to put himself exactly on the wrong side of public opinion in Carthage.

"That's what I'm dealing with," he said, "kind of a perfect storm I've been in, in both directions. One time the tide was going out and the next time it's coming in. I'm fighting the tide both ways."

He said he would do it the same way. "I'm just trying to do what's right."

Bernie Tiede's murder of Marjorie Nugent has now been re-enacted for the public four times — in the media coverage before the trial, in the trial, in the movie and in this new chapter after the history of sexual abuse was uncovered. We all know that no re-enactment can capture truth perfectly. But can't some truth missed in the earlier tellings shine through in later ones? And then there is this: Never bet on East Texas to do what it's told.

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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