Hollywood's Beloved Bernie Tiede Resentenced to Life in Prison for 1996 Murder

The storyline of the movie Bernie, which sympathetically painted convicted murderer Bernie Tiede as a victim of 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent's constant belittlement and abuse before he killed her, apparently did not ring true for jurors last week during Tiede's retrial.

After deliberating for more than four hours Friday, the Henderson, Texas, jury re-sentenced him to 99 years or life in prison, unswayed by the defense's argument that Tiede's alleged sexual abuse as a child, repressed for years and left out of his original trial, left him deserving of a lesser sentence.

Tiede had been living with famed director Richard Linklater, who directed Bernie and cast Jack Black to play his part, for the past two years as he awaited the retrial. Linklater was inspired to make the black comedy following a lengthy 1998 Texas Monthly article that chronicled the murder and original trial. The story noted how strange it was that nobody in the small East Texas town of Carthage seemed to really care or notice that Nugent had been dead for nearly nine months before Tiede, a local mortician and beloved church choir singer who befriended Nugent after her husband died, confessed to the crime.

"What made the story truly bizarre," wrote Skip Hollandsworth, "was the way many of the townspeople rallied around the 39-year-old man who had admitted to killing her and stealing her money — the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Bernie Tiede, the former assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home who had gotten close to Mrs. Nugent when he supervised her husband’s funeral."

A small team of committed defense attorneys and Tiede's supporters, including many Hollywood big-wigs like Linklater, Black and Matthew McConaughey, ultimately convinced Texas's highest appeals court to grant Tiede a new trial. According to the Dallas Morning News, attorney Jodi Cole, who took up Tiede's case after watching the movie, hired psychiatrists to examine Tiede. They concluded that years of victimization, plus the abuse from Marjorie Nugent, was what led him to snap. One even testified that Tiede suffered a brief dissociative episode when he killed her and was able to separate himself from his violent actions, a coping mechanism he likely picked up while suffering sexual abuse, the doctor said.

However, the Dallas Morning News reported that it was Nugent's family members who successfully steered jurors away from sympathizing with Tiede. They reportedly painted Tiede as a gold-digging, calculating killer who continued to steal his dead companion's money even while she was buried in his freezer. They called Hollywood "evil" for ruining their mother and grandmother's reputation and making her look like a fool, and they put an immense amount of pressure on prosectors to ensure that Tiede did not receive a lesser sentence.

Tiede's defense team contended after the trial that Nugent's family was over-involved with prosecutors to the point that it blemished Tiede's chances at securing a just sentence, according to the News. His lawyers also argued that the family was so invested in seeing Tiede put away for life not because they loved her dearly (indeed, they had actually sued her in the past over financial disputes), but because they just wanted her money.

As the defense lawyers told reporters after the trial Friday, this isn't the end of their fight for Bernie, who isn't eligible for parole until 2027.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn