Of all the murders that have taken place in Texas, it is hard to imagine one stranger and more macabre than the November 1996 shooting of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy 81-year-old widow in Carthage, Texas, by Bernie Tiede, the 39-year-old former assistant director of a Carthage funeral home. A few years earlier, Bernie had quit his job at the funeral home to work as Mrs. Nugent’s business manager and traveling companion. She also had named him the sole heir to her estate, which was worth millions (her husband had been a prominent Carthage oilman and banker). Bernie was on his way to becoming a very rich man. But one afternoon, right around lunch time, he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and then buried her in her own deep freeze in her garage, where she remained for nine months before anyone started looking for her.
When her body was finally discovered by police, Bernie quickly confessed to the crime, explaining to the county sheriff that Mrs. Nugent had become so “mean and demanding” that he felt he had no choice but to shoot her. But he added that the reason he kept her in the freezer was because everyone deserved a nice funeral and he hoped she would someday have one, too.
The story made statewide headlines, largely because many citizens in Carthage rallied around Bernie after his arrest, claiming he was a gentle, loving person and that Mrs. Nugent was the meanest woman in town. They begged District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson to give Bernie probation—or even go so far as drop all the charges against him—because they could not imagine he really meant to shoot Mrs. Nugent. Several people told Davidson that if they were picked to be jurors at Bernie’s trial, they would vote to acquit him. Davidson, in turn, successfully filed for a change of venue and had the trial held in San Augustine County. He portrayed Bernie as a monstrous, cold-blooded killer. The jury quickly found Bernie guilty and gave him a life sentence. His appeal was denied.
The Austin-based film director Richard Linklater used a Texas Monthly article I wrote about the case as the basis for the 2011 comic movie Bernie, starring Jack Black as Bernie, Shirley MacLaine as Mrs. Nugent and Mathew McConaughey as District Attorney Davidson. The movie largely portrayed Bernie as a sympathetic if somewhat misguided character. An Austin criminal defense lawyer named Jodi Cole saw the film at a screening, sponsored by Texas Monthly, at the Violet Crown theatre in downtown Austin. Afterwards, she approached Linklater in the theatre’s lobby, handed him her card, and said she wanted to investigate the case again. She said it seemed unfair that Bernie had received a life sentence for committing such an impulsive, irrational act that didn’t jibe with his sweet personality. Maybe, she added, she could find some evidence that would result in a new trial for Bernie—or, at the least, a shorter sentence.
Cole was a good lawyer, but her quest seemed, well, absurd. She was going to try to re-open a murder case based on watching a movie? Yet Linklater provided her with a trial transcript and told her to do whatever she could. When Bernie won the Louis Black “Lone Star” award at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Linklater gave Cole the $2,000 in prize money to use to pay for some of her expenses.
And now, incredibly, Cole claims that she has come across new evidence which, if it had been divulged at his trial, would have explained his vicious act of violence toward Mrs. Nugent and perhaps would have led the jury to be more lenient in its sentencing. This coming week, Cole will be filing a writ of habeas corpus (which is a means used to give a prisoner an opportunity to air grievances related to the handling of his case) in the state district court where Bernie was originally tried. She will be asking that the now 55-year-old Bernie be freed after having served sixteen years of his life sentence. (According to the terms of that sentence, he isn’t eligible for parole until Aug. 20, 2027, eighteen days after his sixty-ninth birthday.)
A hearing over the writ is most likely to place within a day or two after the writ is filed. In fact, Bernie has already been transported from the Texas Department of Corrections’s Telford unit in New Boston, where he is incarcerated, to the county jail in Carthage. If Judge Charles C. “Brick” Dickerson agrees that the writ has merit, he could immediately release Bernie on bond while the state’s criminal court of appeals decides whether Bernie should be given a new punishment hearing—or whether he should be paroled.
How did this surprising turn of events take place? It began when Cole was reading an inventory of what had been taken from Bernie’s home after his arrest. Included were three books on surviving childhood abuse. Cole asked Bernie about the books, and he eventually told her he had been severely sexually abused by an uncle for six years, between the ages of twelve to eighteen—a secret Bernie had told very few people.
Cole then arranged for Bernie to be interviewed by Dr. Richard Pesikoff, a professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine and one of the country’s most highly respected experts in forensic psychiatry. In a five-page report that he wrote this past December for Cole, Pesikoff said Bernie went into detail about the sexual abuse he endured from his uncle “on a regular basis,” leading to what Pesikoff described as “extremely painful and significant experiences.”
Pesikoff also asked Bernie to talk about his five-year relationship with Mrs. Nugent after the death of her husband. According to Pesikoff’s report, Bernie said that Mrs. Nugent initially treated him very well. She saw him as “a replacement for her biological son (and only child) with whom she had a falling out years earlier.” They spent time together every day in a non-sexual way and traveled extensively. But gradually, wrote Pesikoff, “Mr. Tiede indicates that their relationship significantly deteriorated, with Mrs. Nugent becoming unbearably abusive, painfully controlling, and constantly demeaning. He reports that she became extremely possessive and jealous, not allowing him to go anywhere without her.” Bernie told Pesikoff that among the things Mrs. Nugent made him do was shoot at armadillos while she demeaned and ridiculed him (because he was such a bad shot), demanding he shave her legs while she was undressed and that he massage her back with a vibrator.
Bernie said Mrs. Nugent also became “extremely critical and accusatory” of a friend of Bernie’s who worked as a gardener at the Nugent home and who carried on a secret, sexual relationship with Bernie. What’s more, said Bernie, “Mrs. Nugent’s anger continued to increase to the point that he attempted to end their relationship on many occasions. Tiede was unsure why, even after the abusive treatment from Mrs. Nugent, he felt unable to just pick up and leave.”
Mr. Tiede’s ability to repress and compartmentalize the abusive events from childhood and adolescence was ultimately overwhelmed by the repeated and extensive psychological abuse he suffered from Mrs. Nugent. The end result, his loss of control over his emotions and behavior, is evidenced in his final actions toward Mrs. Nugent.
But the shooting, Pesikoff concluded, was not a sinister, planned act. Pesikoff said Tiede told him that he felt he was outside his body, watching himself shoot Mrs. Nugent. Pesikoff concluded that Tiede had experienced a “psychological dissociative experience” at the time of the shooting. What’s more, said Pesikoff, the fact that Bernie kept her in the freezer in hopes of someday burying her—when almost all other criminals try to dispose of the body—suggested that Bernie did not have an “antisocial character disorder.”
Pesikoff noted that Bernie has no “diagnosable psychiatric disorder” and that his judgment is “good.” He also found it significant that Bernie has been an exemplary prisoner since his 1997 arrest. In prison, he has taught a health course to other inmates, attends weekly chapel services, and has obtained his paralegal certificate by taking classes over the Internet. “In the opinion of this consultant and in all medical probability, it is extremely unlikely that, if released from prison and the recipient of appropriate psychological counseling. Mr. Tiede would ever commit any similar act in the future,” Pesikoff wrote. “Through counseling, Mr. Tiede can address his past abusive experiences and develop appropriate skills that would allow him to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Mr. Tiede has a history of always having been a generous and helpful person who, given the opportunity to return to civilian life, has the desire and capacity to once again become a constructive and positive force in society.”
Is it possible that the sexual abuse Bernie endured as a child is inextricably connected to his gruesome murder of Mrs. Nugent? And if so, should that affect his sentence? What will probably determine Bernie’s fate is another psychiatric evaluation that was conducted last week by Dr. Edward Gripon, a psychiatrist from Beaumont whom District Attorney Davidson had hired to evaluate Bernie back at his 1998 trial. According to various sources, if Gripon determines that Bernie is no longer a threat and decides that there is no chance he would commit such a crime again, then Davidson could agree that Bernie’s sentence should be shortened and Bernie be set free. Davidson did perhaps give a hint at what he might do when told the local Carthage newspaper, the Panola Watchman, “When new things come up that weren’t there at the beginning, you have to look at them.”