By Ryan C. Perry
April 16, 2014
When authorities found Marjorie Nugent’s body in a freezer in the pantry of her home, it brought to an end a nine-month charade by the man who killed her.
But Bernie Tiede’s actions were about to draw national attention to the murder, his lies and the small East Texas town of Carthage.
In August 1997, authorities found the wealthy widow’s body, Tiede confessed, and he directed investigators to the murder weapon.
Then, to tack another bizarre turn on an already bizarre case, came the unexpected public reaction to Tiede’s arrest.
“There were a lot of people who were outraged,” said David Jeter, lead investigator. “They thought that we had picked him out. They couldn’t believe he had done that — just like we couldn’t believe he had done it.”
District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson and Jeter faced questions from people who thought Tiede shouldn’t be charged. Elderly women circled the block in protest. People made “Free Bernie” signs.
“The initial reaction was very pro-Bernie, and surely a mistake had been made,” Davidson said. “As time went along and as more people realized he confessed, by the time the trial was over with, I think public opinion had swung back against Bernie.”
Tiede, who had attended church with Davidson and Jeter, said recently he holds no ill will for the pair tasked with putting him behind bars.
“(Davidson) had to make these people realize that something bad had happened,” Tiede said. “I took somebody’s life, and that’s not me. I don’t do things like that, and that’s the only thing people could see. ‘Bernie couldn’t have done that.’ No, but I did. I have to face up to that.”
So strong was pro-Tiede public opinion in Carthage that Davidson made the unusual move of calling for a change of venue. Usually, a defense attorney will call for a change of venue when a crime is so horrific there is no way a jury could try a defendant without bias. Rarely is a confessed murderer so popular the trial must be moved by a prosecutor hoping to find a jury willing to convict.
“We couldn’t find a fair and impartial jury,” Davidson said. “Everyone kind of had their mind made up about what they thought should happen.”
Trial and conviction
The trial was moved to the small town of San Augustine — a move that did not bode well for Tiede.
“We tried desperately to keep the trial in Panola County, which would have been to Bernie’s benefit,” said Tiede’s defense attorney, Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes of Longview. “Logistically, it was not possible to get a jury there.”
Davidson said Holmes did his best to keep the trial from taking place in the small town.
“He came very close to keeping us from getting a jury selected in San Augustine,” Davidson said. “He almost got the panel to say they couldn’t be fair and impartial.”
Describing the jury finally empaneled, Holmes thought for a moment, then settled on the word “rural.”
A carnival-like atmosphere surrounded the trial. Many used it as a macabre fundraiser.
“There were so many people in that town, there weren’t enough restaurants,” Davidson said. “You’d walk out and the band boosters and everyone were selling food. You could get a hot dog; you could get a fajita.”
Inside the courtroom, both attorneys knew the length of time Tiede would spend behind bars would hinge on how the jury related to him as a person. All the evidence, including a massive money trail of evidence provided by the IRS, was damning.
“With a confession laying there and all the physical evidence laying there, the only thing you can do is get some ease on the punishment phase of the trial,” Holmes said. “In the setting that it was tried, that was never really available.”
Before the trial was adjourned for the weekend, Davidson showed a clip of Nugent’s frozen body being pulled from the freezer in a Dallas crime lab.
“Two of the jurors stood up and screamed,” Davidson said. “Scrappy jumps up, he hollers for a mistrial. What do you think they thought about all weekend?”
Stephen King couldn’t have done a better job, Davidson recalled Holmes telling him.
“The jury reacted in unison when that part of the video was shown, and turned their eyes, and were completely blown away by what they saw,” Holmes said. “And they never got any better after that.”
Davidson kept the focus on Tiede’s joy of the good life provided by Nugent’s money. He described the treatment when flying first class, the voyage on the Queen Mary and the cross-Atlantic flights on the Concorde. He had him describe food and wine.
“He retired at 28 to be a travel companion and bookkeeper,” Davidson said. “I don’t think the jury could relate to him. He enjoyed the finer things in life.”
On Feb. 9, 1999, the jury convicted Tiede of murder. On Feb. 11, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2027.
Tiede was on his way to a new life inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
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