By Chuck Lindell - American-Statesman Staff
The family of Marjorie Nugent, whose 1996 murder formed the backdrop of the movie “Bernie,” has asked the state’s highest criminal court for permission to speak on the victim’s behalf as judges weigh the fate of her killer, Bernie Tiede.
Tiede has asked the Court of Criminal Appeals for a new sentencing trial in the shooting death of Nugent, a rich 81-year-old widow whom he had befriended in the small East Texas town of Carthage despite their 43-year age difference.
Because Tiede’s onetime legal nemesis, prosecutor Danny “Buck” Davidson, supports the request for a new sentencing trial — the first step toward a lighter sentence for Tiede — Nugent’s family asked the appeals court to accept a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Tiede’s request.
“Someone should speak for his elderly victim if the state will not,” Nugent’s son and four grandchildren told the court in a motion filed Wednesday. “Marjorie Nugent and the citizens of Texas deserve better than to have a confessed murderer set free without anyone even articulating to this court the reasons why that might not be appropriate.”
Tiede was sentenced to life in prison for shooting Nugent and stuffing her body into a stand alone freezer, where she lay undiscovered for nine months.
At the time, Davidson pushed hard to convict Tiede of murder, even winning a change of venue to move the trial out of Carthage, where public sentiment strongly favored the personable Tiede over Nugent, who was generally considered to be standoffish and mean, according to press reports at the time.
But Davidson, the Panola County criminal district attorney, recently changed his outlook when he was presented with evidence that Tiede was the victim of a sexual predator — an uncle who abused him for six years starting around age 12, according to court documents. The abuse had a devastating effect on Tiede’s life, explaining why he snapped in the shooting of Nugent, according to psychiatrists who recently examined him.
In a May 6 hearing before visiting Judge Diane DeVasto, Davidson said he would have sought no more than a 20-year sentence — instead of a life term — had he known about the sexual abuse.
Saying it was the duty of prosecutors “not to convict, but to see that justice is done,” Davidson announced that he and defense lawyers had agreed to seek a new punishment trial for Tiede, during which the prosecution would request a sentence of time served — 17 years.
DeVasto agreed to recommend that the Court of Criminal Appeals grant Tiede a new sentencing hearing and allowed Tiede to go free on bond. He currently lives in the garage apartment of “Bernie” director Richard Linklater’s home in Austin.
Davidson declined to comment on the court filing or about a letter, sent by the Nugent family earlier this week, seeking information about his change of heart in the Tiede case.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he told the American-Statesman on Thursday. “I’m just going to abide by whatever the court decides.”
Shanna Nugent, the victim’s youngest granddaughter, said her family is working to counter the “villainization” of her grandmother, whom she described as physically frail and needing help, only to be taken advantage of, and ultimately betrayed, by Tiede.
“It’s very distressing,” she said. “I don’t think you should ever allow a murderer to choose not to tell something at trial, and later bring it up (on appeal) and game the system that way.”
DeVasto has barred Tiede and his Austin lawyer, Jodi Cole, from speaking to reporters while the appeal continues.