News Guide: Real-life ‘Bernie’ murder case back in court
DALLAS (AP) — A funeral director in small-town East Texas befriends a widow 40 years his senior at her husband’s funeral, spends her money freely, then shoots her and hides her body in a freezer for nine months.
Bernie Tiede’s case could have been written for Hollywood — and when it was, the resulting attention got him out of a life sentence.
The real-life case featured in the 2011 dark comedy “Bernie” heads back to a courtroom April 6 for a new sentencing trial, two decades after Marjorie Nugent was killed.
Here’s the quick rundown of the case and the movie:
Tiede was a mortician at the Hawthorn Funeral Home in Carthage, Texas, a town of about 7,000 about 150 miles east of Dallas.
Nugent was more than 40 years his senior. The two met at her husband’s funeral in 1990, and became close friends. They took lavish vacations abroad, and Tiede became known around town for the gifts he gave himself and local residents — using Nugent’s money.
In 1996, Tiede shot Nugent four times in the back with a .22-caliber rifle, then hid her body in a freezer next to packages of frozen meat, pecans and corn. He carried on for nine months as if Nugent was still alive before authorities searched her home and found her body.
In his confession, Tiede described her as “evil” and asserted that he snapped under the pressure of her mistreatment.
After an initial mistrial, jurors in 1999 took less than an hour to convict him of murder. He received a life sentence, but was released in May 2014 after his original prosecutor said he overlooked evidence Tiede was abused as a child and may have deserved a lighter sentence.
Adapted from a Texas Monthly story about the case, “Bernie” stars Jack Black portraying Tiede as a quirky, friendly man who sings in the church choir, helps local residents start businesses and is beloved by a small, insular community.
Tiede gets a more sympathetic portrayal than Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine as a crotchety, withdrawn scold disliked by most of the town who insults Tiede constantly.
Nugent’s family has long protested how the widow is presented in the movie.
“My grandmother was a real person,” said her granddaughter, Shanna Nugent, in a 2014 interview. “She can’t defend herself, and the reason she can’t is Bernie Tiede killed her.”
Several Carthage residents appear in the movie, speaking direct-to-camera about the case and their town.
Austin attorney Jodi Cole saw the movie, which prompted her to begin investigating Tiede’s case.
She argued Tiede had been sexually abused as a child and felt trapped in a mentally abusive relationship with Nugent. A psychiatrist testified at a 2014 court hearing that Tiede likely had a “brief dissociative episode” when he killed her.
Those arguments persuaded Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney who originally won Tiede’s murder conviction and life sentence, to support Tiede’s release on the grounds that he should have been sentenced instead for murder as a second-degree felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, not life in prison.
After his release, Tiede went to live at filmmaker Richard Linklater’s Austin home. A judge has forbidden Tiede from speaking to the media.
A jury will ultimately decide whether Tiede, now 57, should go back to prison or go free. The trial will take place in Henderson, Texas, about 30 miles west of Carthage.
Davidson, who agreed to support Tiede’s release, has been replaced by two lawyers from the Texas attorney general’s office.
Attorneys for both sides are under a gag order, but Cole has suggested in recent court hearings that she will argue Tiede was also being used by Nugent to launder money.
The trial could take several weeks. Jury selection is scheduled to begin April 1.
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant.