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Judge Agrees to Release Murderer "Bernie" Backed by Austin Filmmaker

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede exits the Panola County Court building with his attorney Jodi Cole after his hearing on Feb. 5, 2014 in Carthage. His attorney filed new evidence that could affect his punishment term.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

CARTHAGE — On Tuesday, more than 17 years after Bernie Tiede shot 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back and tucked her body under potpies in a deep freezer, a judge released him on bond, agreeing with lawyers that his life sentence should be reduced.

But his release comes with strict conditions, among them that he live in the Austin garage apartment of his moviemaking benefactor, Richard Linklater, and receive counseling for sexual abuse.

State district Judge Diane DeVasto agreed to allow Tiede's release after she heard evidence that sexual abuse he suffered as a child contributed to his crime and after a psychiatrist said Tiede would not pose a danger to society.

Standing before the judge in an orange jail-issued jumpsuit, a now gray-haired Tiede agreed to follow the court's orders to remain in the Austin area, to follow his treatment plan and to maintain his employment as a legal clerk for the Austin lawyer who successfully appealed his case, Jodi Cole.

"You're subject to re-arrest at any time if you don't comply," DeVasto warned. 

“Yes ma’am, I will,” said Tiede, who repeatedly wiped tears from eyes during the 90-minute hearing that led to his release.

Tiede and his crime became famous after the release of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie, a dark comedy about the 1996 shooting for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Tiede's lawyers and Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson agreed that his sentence should be reduced after psychiatrists discovered new evidence that he was repeatedly sexually abused from ages 12 to 18. Had jurors known about the abuse during his 1999 trial, the lawyers agreed in court documents, they would have handed down a lighter sentence. On Tuesday, DeVasto heard testimony from psychiatrist Edward Gripon, who evaluated Tiede, and from Linklater, who has agreed to allow the former funeral director to live with him in Austin.

Under the conditions of his bond, Tiede is not allowed to speak to the media.

Davidson called Tiede's release "bittersweet." The small-town prosecutor faced public outrage in 1999 when he prosecuted the then-popular Tiede, who many in the community loved as a church-going bachelor and friendly choir singer. And he has seen backlash again from Carthage residents who believe a life sentence was the appropriate one for Tiede. 

"It's a tragedy all around," Davidson said after the hearing Tuesday. "There's no winners."

In an affidavit filed with the court, Davidson said new evidence of sexual abuse that Tiede suffered changed his mind about what punishment was just in this case.

"We must make the right decision for our community, whether the decisions are popular or not," he wrote.

Linklater told the judge that he met Tiede about four years ago when he began work on the film about the crime in Carthage.

"I was very impressed in prison how the other inmates looked up to him," Linklater said. "He seemed to be a very positive force in a negative environment."

Linklater said he had no qualms about having the convicted murderer live near his home and family.

"Myself and others are determined to help him in any way we can," he said. 

Ryan Gravatt, a spokesman for the Nugent family, said on Monday that Tiede should stay behind bars for the cold-blooded killing.

“He confessed to her murder and his confession was admitted in his trial,” Gravatt said. “A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, where he should remain.”

Tiede and Nugent met at Hawthorn Funeral Home, where he was the assistant director. By 1993, Tiede had left his job to work with Nugent full time as her business manager and companion. They shopped together, attended musicals and traveled.

In November 1996, at age 38, Tiede lost patience with Nugent, who had a reputation around the small town of Carthage for being ornery, and shot her. Police found her body months later in the freezer at her home. At the high-profile trial, Davidson painted Tiede as a gold-digger who enjoyed spending Nugent’s fortune and shot her because he became weary of her demands.

After the 2011 film, new lawyers signed on with Tiede to assist in his appeals. As they investigated the case, they noticed Tiede had a small collection of self-help books for victims of sexual abuse. When pressed by a counselor, Tiede admitted that he had been abused — something he had not told his lawyers during the 1999 trial.

Richard Pesikoff, a psychiatrist hired by Tiede’s lawyers, evaluated him and concluded that the shooting was the result of a “dissociative experience” brought on when Nugent's allegedly abusive behavior eroded Tiede's ability to suppress his emotions. Tiede was able to go on for months after the murder as if nothing had happened because, as a closeted gay man in a tiny East Texas town, he had become accustomed to repressing parts of himself that others might reject, Pesikoff wrote in his report. 

“Through counseling, Mr. Tiede can address his past abusive experiences and develop appropriate coping skills that would allow him to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships,” Pesikoff wrote.

Psychiatrist Edward Gripon, whom Davidson had hired to examine Tiede for the state in 1999, came to the same conclusion after learning of the abuse and of what he called a "toxic" and "dysfunctional" relationship between Tiede and Nugent. Gripon said in court on Tuesday that if he had known of that evidence at Tiede’s trial, he would have concluded that he had experienced a “dissociative episode.” 

"You have a unique and unusual event that occurred,” Gripon said of the murder, adding, “I don’t think he’s a future danger as best we can assess that.”

With his own expert agreeing that Tiede was not a continuing danger to society and that the crime was one of sudden passion, Davidson said he was left with little option but to agree with defense lawyers. The maximum sentence for a murder born of sudden passion is 20 years. Had Tiede received that sentence in 1999, he would likely already be out of prison, the prosecutor said.

Tiede was released on a $10,000 personal bond. His conditions include that he live in Austin with Linklater, that he seek psychological help to cope with the abuse and that he is not allowed to possess any firearms, among other things. Tiede will remain under the conditions of the bond until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, approves the reduced sentence.

Living in Austin, a community that is larger and more liberal than Carthage, will be good for Tiede, Davidson said. Many in the town that once embraced Tiede are now vehemently opposed to his release. The prosecutor said he expected Tiede’s release to be wildly unpopular among people who live in Carthage.

“People here don’t want him walking the streets of Carthage,” he said. “He’s going to become integrated into the gay community in Austin. Then he won’t have to live the closeted life of a gay person.”

But at least one Carthage resident was happy for Tiede. Reba Tarjick, who played a role in Linklater’s film, sat in the second row of the courtroom right behind Tiede during the hearing. She said she thought he had served enough time.

“We all make mistakes,” she said outside the courthouse. “We’re still God’s children.”

Disclosure: Richard Linklater is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Brandi Grissom joined the Tribune after four years at the El Paso Times, where she acted as a one-woman Capitol bureau during the last two legislative sessions. Grissom won the Associated Press Managing Editors First-Place Award in 2007 for using the Freedom of Information Act to report stories on a variety of government programs and entities, and the ACLU of Texas named her legislative reporter of the year in 2007 for her immigration reporting. She previously served as managing editor at The Daily Texan and has worked for the Alliance Times-Herald, the Taylor Daily Press, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung and The Associated Press. A native of Alliance, Neb., she has a degree in history from the University of Texas.
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