Bernie Tiede, formerly of Carthage, Texas, was freed from a life sentence after being convicted of murdering his 81-year-old companion in 1999. The former mortician’s sentence was adjusted after new evidence led the Panola County District Attorney to agree that the prison term went too far. As a strict bond condition, Tiede will be released to Austin-based filmmaker and personal advocate, Richard Linklater.
The story of mortician turned personal “companion” into murderer caught the attention of Hollywood filmmaker Richard Linklater after reading a Texas Monthly article, Midnight in the Garden of East Texas, was published in January 1998. The in-depth article detailed the case of Tiede, a friendly and “effeminate” bachelor who would personally comfort elderly widows after he buried their dearly departed. In 1990, he connected with wealthy and newly-widowed Marjorie Nugent–which began a relationship eventually ending with her body being discovered in a sealed deep freezer in 1996, according to the Associated Press.
When Tiede was asked why he did not use his new means provided by asset transfers granted in the late Mrs. Nugent’s will to cover up the crime, he claimed “I wanted to give Mrs. Nugent a proper burial. You know, everyone needs a proper burial.”
Tiede was investigated and charged with a number of crimes in the aftermath to include Nugent’s murder. According to news reports at the time, prosecutors were concerned that the State could not have a fair jury locally due to Tiede’s notorious support for community initiatives and charitable ventures. Further, Texas Monthly noted a consistent negative attitude toward Nugent as the town “Grinch.” The trial was later relocated and led to Tiede’s life sentence.
A Hollywood Ending
Days and Confused filmmaker Richard Linklater of Austin breathed new life into the story by directing the independent film, Bernie, relying heavily on Texas Monthly‘s telling of the story in 2011. Billed as a dark comedy, the feature did not have a strong showing at the box office but found salvation in online content streaming services. The film boasted a respectable cast with Jack Black as Tiede; Shirley McLaine as Marjorie Nugent; and Oscar Winner Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney. A Greek chorus of actual townspeople served to advance much of the plot exposition.
The Longview News-Journal produced a short web video to capture the reactions of Carthage residents portrayed in the film.
A primary criticism of the film from locals was the dramatic license used to describe the convicting jury as being lesser educated than could have been given to Tiede locally. To seemingly make matters worse, the specific dialog was not delivered by a local cameo scene, but seasoned character actor Sonny Carl Davis.
According to the Los Angeles Times, attorney Jodi Cole attended an early screening where she met Linklater and offered her business card, stating “there’s something about this case that doesn’t make sense.” Cole later discovered a missing element in Tiede’s background that would have helped bolster his defense that he snapped and murdered in a “brief dissociative episode.” She found that Tiede had allegedly suffered prolonged child abuse which made him vulnerable to “toxic relationships” according to the Times.
“He doesn’t come across in examination at all as a person prone to violence,” Psychiatrist Edward Gripon–the examining physician–told the AP. “That set of circumstances … is not going to recreate itself.”
The new evidence offered by Cole led still-serving Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson to agree that Tiede’s sentence should be adjusted to time served. Pending approval of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the former mortician will be released into Richard Linklater’s care and be employed as a legal clerk for his attorney, Jodi Cole.
The AP noted that surviving family members of Marjorie Nugent have expressed their deep unhappiness with the latest court action.
“I really wanted justice for Nanny,” Dallas-area lawyer Shanna Nugent told the AP. “This doesn’t really feel like justice.”
The popular film and television ratings website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 90 percent rating.
Follow Logan Churchwell on Twitter @LCChurchwell