By Glenn Evans
December 3, 2014
Marjorie Nugent’s family is demanding the Panola County district attorney step aside from a new punishment trial for convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, saying the prosecutor has worked with a Hollywood filmmaker for years to reduce Tiede’s sentence.
If a letter sent Monday to Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson turned up any heat on the elected official, he wasn’t acknowledging that publicly. Davidson, who told a court in May that Tiede should be released from a life sentence with 15 years time served, did not respond to a message left with his office Tuesday.
“Simply put,” the letter from Nugent attorney Johnny Merritt to Davidson says, “we believe your recusal is absolutely essential and required by applicable ethical rules.”
Tiede was released from his life sentence for the 1996 murder of his 81-year-old companion and benefactress in May after a new defense team and Davidson signed on to a joint motion.
Davidson told the court in May he would have sought a maximum 20-year sentence in 1999 had he been aware of childhood sexual assault against Tiede that was discovered in January by defense attorney Jodi Cole.
“We didn’t even know it was going on,” Nugent’s granddaughter, Shanna Nugent, said about the May hearing, revealing a source of enmity between the family and Davidson. “We went to every single day of that (1999) trial, every single day of jury selection — everything. One of the most pernicious lies out there is we don’t care. We do care.”
Monday’s letter quotes a speech to the Palestine Rotary Club in which it says Davidson noted the major holidays that passed while Nugent remained missing.
“‘Her family was not looking for her,’ ” the letter quotes the speech, “ ‘but they got real mad when they found (Tiede had) spent a bunch of her money after her death — ’bout $6 million worth.’ ”
“We know Danny Buck tried to make it sound like we never tried to contact her, or we were never in touch with her,” Shanna Nugent said Tuesday. “And that’s a whole falsehood.”
Living in Amarillo at the time, the family consisted of Nugent’s son Rod, his wife, a son and Shanna, and two sisters.
“We lived about 600 miles away,” she said, describing attempts to call and write her grandmother that were rebuffed by Tiede, including her college graduation invitation marked “ return to sender.”
Shanna Nugent said Tiede, at one point, said her grandmother was recovering from a heart attack in Ohio.
“We were kind of concerned, and were trying to work with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office during all this time,” she said. “In our wildest imagination, we never thought he had murdered her. We thought she was sick.”
The family eventually filed a missing persons report, and Rod Nugent Jr. found his mother’s body in August 1997. He also found her answering machine, the granddaughter said.
“There were a ton of messages from my family, saying, ‘Where are you? We’re trying to find you.’ My family was always trying to get in touch with her. (Tiede) was the gatekeeper.”
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Nov. 26 ordered a new punishment hearing for Tiede, 56. No date has been set for that trial, but the Austin court told the lower court in Carthage to issue a warrant to bring Tiede home within 10 days.
Tiede also has a pending felony theft indictment, arising from charges he spent the wealthy oil widow’s millions while she lived and after he shot her four times in the back and hid her body for nine months in a freezer.
Davidson’s handling of that pending felony, along with his relationship with the Austin celebrities who created the movie “Bernie ” about the case, are chief reasons Rod Nugent and his children are asking Davidson to step aside.
“We were shocked to learn that you have been working in tandem with Tiede’s defense team for over two years to obtain his release,” Merritt wrote for the family, citing a June interview with “Bernie” director Richard Linklater in Variety magazine.
“What didn’t get reported immediately was the fact that Tiede’s release marked the culmination of a roughly two-year concerted effort by Linklater and others — chiefly Danny Buck Davidson,” the article states, leaving Linklater as the understood source. “Their goal: to reduce Tiede’s sentence to time served.”
The family is asking the Panola County prosecutor to exercise his option to ask the state attorney general to send an assistant to lead the second sentencing trial.
“Tiede’s sentence should be decided by a jury of his peers — not your unilateral decision as to what is ‘enough’ time,” the family wrote.