If you're a cold-blooded killer confined to prison for the rest of your life, it helps to have celebrity friends on the outside — friends with the kind of sway and money to get you another crack at freedom.
In the case of Bernie Tiede, who shot an 81-year-old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a freezer — after, that is, of robbing her of more than $3.5 million — those friends include director Richard Linklater, Jack Black, and Matthew McConaughey. Those three are of course responsible for the cult film "Bernie," based on the 1998 Texas Monthly article about Tiede, a beloved small-town funeral director who killed the allegedly shrewish Marjorie Nugent. Tiede was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. (Black and Shirley MacLaine portrayed Tiede and Nugent).
And those three are now throwing an "uber-private" fundraiser for Tiede's re-sentencing trial. Writes the Texas Tribune.
In the invitation, Linklater writes that the fundraiser "will include a dinner and music line-up we'll all be talking about for years. Jack Black, Bernie composer Graham Reynolds and Bernie Tiede himself will perform songs from the movie and more. After that, Jack's band Tenacious D will take the stage."
As an added incentive to those who help pay for a table at the fundraiser, Linklater promised 'the most exclusive screening of Bernie EVER' with Tiede, McConaughey, Black and 'possibly' MacLaine in attendance, according to the invitation.
Tiede's sentence was vacated in 2014 after an appellate lawyer argued that newly surfaced evidence could have resulted in a lighter sentence. Curiously, the "new" evidence came from Tiede himself: he claimed to have been sexually abused by an uncle when he was a child. His appellate attorney, Jodi Cole, has said this was backed up in part by books on surviving sexual abuse found in Tiede's home at the time of arrest. (Tiede was released on bond, and has been living in Linklater's guest house).
Cole successfully argued that Tiede killed Nugent in a "dissociative episode" brought about by the abuse, and that the murder was not premeditated, as the State claimed at trial. (Tiede's uncle, Elmer Doucete, had previously been charged with molesting Tiede's cousin, but the charges were dropped after authorities realized that the statute of limitations had tolled).
At trial, the State's expert psychiatric witnesses testified that Tiede's mental health history was unremarkable. After the allegations of sexual abuse were raised, the expert conceded that, had he known, he would have testified differently at trial. Because of that distinction, the expert's testimony is now referred to in court briefs as "false."
In a concurring opinion for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Judge Elsa Alcala wrote:
"I agree that, at first blush, it seems peculiar to characterize information as newly discovered — the fact that he had been sexually abused as a child — when, at least at some subconscious level, it had to have been known by [Tiede] himself at the time of trial. But this phenomenon was explained in the habeas record by experts who averred that [Tiede] had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child for many years and had suppressed his actual awareness of it to the point that he was incapable of revealing the memories to anyone at trial."
It's a little unclear how Tiede's claim, years after his conviction, became "fact," but the Tribune article notes that attorneys on both sides are under a gag order, so if there's persuasive evidence, we'll have to wait until the re-sentencing to hear it.
As expected, Nugent's family is skeptical, writing in a friend-of-the-court brief:
The concurring opinion permits criminal defendants like Tiede to game the system by following a simple set of instructions:
1) Withhold mitigating information concerning sentencing from your attorneys and all the expert witnesses.
2) Permit the expert witnesses to testify on facts you know to be false due to your own concealment of information.
3) Roll the dice with the jury and see if you get a favorable result.
4) If not, seek habeas relief based on the "false evidence" created by your own withholding of information.
Writing for the Dallas Morning News, Tod Robberson casts some doubt on the "dissociative episode" theory:
Tiede did not, as his lawyer now argues, kill his longtime companion Marjorie Nugent in an act of sudden passion out of some dissociative episode related to the alleged sexual abuse he received as a child. Tiede killed her to cover up the fact that he had stolen millions of dollars from her and manipulated documents to hide that fact. Nugent and her family, and Nugent's banker, finally had caught up with Tiede's criminal behavior, and the day he shot Marjorie Nugent in the back, the two were scheduled to meet with her banker to discuss what Tiede had done with Marjorie's money. And we're talking about more than $3.5 million here.
Depending on how you look at it, that's either a really fortunate or a terribly unfortunate day to experience your only dissociative episode on record.
Given how abusive Nugent allegedly was to Tiede — she was apparently so wicked that she evoked suppressed memories of childhood trauma — we're kind of surprised he'd even want to be there for "the most exclusive screening of Bernie EVER," as Linklater's fundraiser invitation promises. Shouldn't guests be worried that the screening could trigger another deadly episode? Or would they be reassured by their celebrity hosts that they shouldn't worry — after all, it's just make-believe.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.