In August 1997, I first went to the East Texas town of Carthage to find out more about Bernie Tiede, the then 39-year-old former assistant director of a local funeral home who had been arrested for murdering 81-year-old Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, one of the small town’s wealthiest widows. Bernie had confessed to police that in November 1996, he had shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back then buried her in her own deep freeze, where she remained until sheriff’s deputies found her nearly nine months later.
Those facts alone made the story interesting enough. But I knew this was going to be unlike any story I had ever covered when I watched a group of townspeople surround District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson at the local barbeque joint, Daddy Sam’s—(the marquee out front read, “You Kill it, I’ll Cook It”)—to ask him to drop the charges against Bernie, or at the least agree to give Bernie a light probated sentence. They told Danny Buck that it was the right thing to do because Bernie was the nicest man in town and Mrs. Nugent was the meanest.
Danny Buck looked like he was going to explode. “But he confessed,” he bellowed at his constituents. “He confessed to being a back shooter!’
“Now Danny Buck, you just need to learn to forgive a man for making one mistake,” one of the townspeople quietly replied. “I’m going to tell you this right now, if I’m on that jury, I’m going to vote to acquit.”
I remember just shaking my head and thinking, “No one is going to believe any of this story is true.”
But it was, and I wrote about it for Texas Monthly in January 1998.
I shook my head again when in 2011, more than a decade after Bernie had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, Austin film director Richard Linklater somehow turned the whole macabre tale into a brilliant black comedy, Bernie, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. To my amazement, the independently produced film—it cost an estimated $6 million to make—became a hit of sorts, especially in Texas. One woman, a Dallas dentist’s wife, told me she had seen the movie “at least ten times.” (Full disclosure: I co-wrote the screenplay.)
Now, of course, I’m shaking my head again. Visiting Judge Diane DeVasto has just released the 55-year-old Bernie from prison on $10,000 personal recognizance bond. At a hearing Tuesday, she agreed with a motion filed by Bernie’s attorney Jodi Cole which claimed that if the jurors in the original trial had heard testimony about Bernie being sexually abused by a relative during his teenage years, they most likely would have given him a lesser sentence than life. What was perhaps most incredible was that Danny Buck, a long-time, hard-nosed prosecutor, told the judge that if he had known about the evidence of Bernie’s childhood abuse, he would only have prosecuted him for second degree murder, which has a maximum sentence of twenty years. Considering that Bernie has already served seventeen years, Danny Buck said he would be willing for Bernie to be released on time served.
The state’s court of criminal appeals now must decide whether Bernie should be re-tried with a new jury hearing evidence about the abuse he endured—a decision that might not take place for several months. But until that decision is made, Bernie can go free. DeVasto did say that along with his personal recognizance bond he must maintain employment, submit to and pay for random drug testing, live in a designated residence, not possess a firearm, not have contact with the victim’s family, and not have “voluntary contact” with the media.
Cole replied that Bernie would abide by all the rules. She added that he would move to Austin, work for her, and get counseling. And as for that designated residence? Richard Linklater, wearing a gray suit and a tie, took the witness stand, and dropped a bombshell. He said that he would let Bernie live in his garage apartment.
Bernie Tiede was about to walk out of prison and move in with one of the most celebrated film directors in America.
At the hearing, the 53-year-old Linklater, who earlier this year received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for Before Midnight and who is likely to get a best director nomination next year for his upcoming movie Boyhood, said he had been very impressed with Bernie during their meetings in prison. He noted that Bernie was often called the “model inmate” and that other prisoners looked up to him. He insisted that he was “very serious” about his desire to supervise Bernie as he adjusted to life in Austin, which is not exactly the spitting image of small-town Carthage. (In the movie Bernie, one Carthage man refers to state capital as “the People’s Republic of Austin with a bunch of hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes.”)
“Are you really sure you want to do this?” Linklater was asked by Danny Buck during the hearing.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Linklater.
“No firearms and stuff like that?”
“No,” said Linklater, who is not exactly a member of the National Rifle Association.
Danny Buck seemed satisfied, and a few minutes later, DeVasto wished Bernie luck and ended the hearing.
Bernie, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, wept into a handkerchief.
The announcement of Bernie’s release has hardly been met with universal approval. Comments on blogs and newspaper websites have been scornful. “This is absolutely unreal,” one man wrote to the paper in Longview , which is just up the road from Carthage. “We are going to have every murderer in the United States yelling they I was abused when I was a kid so they can take a walk as well!” And a spokesman for the Nugent family did issue a statement to the Texas Tribune claiming that the family firmly believed Bernie should continue to serve a life sentence.
But most people are, like me, simply