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Over 15 Years, a Town’s Stance on a Convict Shifts

The New York Times

Feb. 8, 2014

By Brandi Grissom

CARTHAGE — Fifteen years ago, when tall, dark-haired, golden-piped Bernie Tiede was awaiting trial for murder, there seemed to be a constant stream of admiring locals — primarily older widows — heaping their support on him.

The women brought treats to the jail for Mr. Tiede, a former assistant funeral director. They praised him as a sweet, young, churchgoing community volunteer and pleaded with the Panola County prosecutor, Danny Buck Davidson, not to send him to prison.

That stream of doting adorers appears to have dried up in the decade and a half since Mr. Tiede, now 55, was convicted of killing Marjorie Nugent, 81, a wealthy widow. Last week, the courtroom was filled mostly with the local news media and curious onlookers when Mr. Tiede, now gray-haired with wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose, walked into the Panola County Courthouse for proceedings that could lead to an early end to his life sentence.

“The community has completely turned 180 degrees,” Diane Davidson, the wife of the prosecutor, said. “They want him to serve his time.”

Mr. Tiede was convicted in 1999 of fatally shooting Mrs. Nugent, then storing her body in her freezer for nine months. A defense lawyer filed documents last week seeking Mr. Tiede’s release based on new evidence that he was sexually abused as a young man and that Mrs. Nugent forced him to relive that trauma with her abusive, controlling behavior.

“Like waves of the ocean, beating on the rocks, Mr. Tiede’s coping skills were ultimately erased, leading to his inability to suppress these emotions and resulting in his outburst of aggression,” Dr. Richard Pesikoff, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in a report filed with the court.

Mr. Tiede and Mrs. Nugent met at Hawthorn Funeral Home, where he was the assistant director. By 1993, Mr. Tiede had left his job to work with Mrs. Nugent full time as her business manager and companion. They shopped together, attended musicals and traveled. In November 1996, at age 38, Mr. Tiede lost patience with Mrs. Nugent. Police found her body months later tucked under potpies in the freezer.

In 1999, when Mr. Davidson, who declined to comment for this article, was preparing for the trial, his wife said, there were few places they could go without hearing support for Mr. Tiede. She said that at the First United Methodist Church — where Mr. Tiede often sang and gave sermons — the pastor prayed, not for the widow’s family or for the prosecutor, but for Mr. Tiede to have strength during his time of trouble.

“He was such a pillar of the community,” Ms. Davidson said.

Residents in Carthage did not seem to care much for Mrs. Nugent. She had a reputation in this East Texas town for being mean, vindictive and uppity.

Richard Linklater, who made “Bernie,” a 2011 dark comedy film based on the murder, said that Mr. Tiede was the only person he found in Carthage who said anything nice about Mrs. Nugent.

“I’m still waiting for that first good word about Marjorie,” Mr. Linklater said.

But Mr. Tiede had confessed. At the time of the trial, psychiatrists for the defense and the prosecutor found no reason to believe he had experienced a “sudden passion” that would warrant reducing the charge to second-degree murder. Mr. Davidson charged Mr. Tiede with first-degree murder and told jurors that his crime was fueled by greed. They sentenced him to life.

After the release of Mr. Linklater’s film, Mr. Tiede got new counsel, an Austin defense lawyer named Jodi Cole. She asked Dr. Pesikoff to interview her client and during the visit, Mr. Tiede said that he was repeatedly sexually abused by a relative from the time he was 12 until he was 18.

Just as Mr. Tiede was unable to escape that abusive relationship, Dr. Pesikoff wrote, he was unable to extricate himself from what became an abusive relationship with Mrs. Nugent.

Mr. Tiede said that Mrs. Nugent forced him to shave her legs while she was undressed and massage her back with a vibrator. He said she often demeaned and ridiculed him, and became critical and accusatory toward a male gardener with whom Mr. Tiede had a clandestine sexual relationship.

Dr. Pesikoff concluded that the years of abuse caused Mr. Tiede to snap.

Dr. Edward Gripon, a psychiatrist Mr. Davidson hired to evaluate Mr. Tiede before the original trial, interviewed him again last month. He agreed with Dr. Pesikoff’s assessment.

Dr. Gripon wrote that after years spent repressing the effects of childhood abuse and hiding his homosexuality in a community he worried would not accept him, Mr. Tiede learned to compartmentalize his emotions, allowing him to act normally for the months after the murder.

Both doctors agreed that the killing was an act of sudden passion and that Mr. Tiede would not be a persistent threat to society.

Now, a court will decide whether, as Mr. Tiede’s lawyer argues, jurors would have sentenced him to less than life in prison if they had known about the abuse and its effects. Outside of Carthage, support for Mr. Tiede seems to be growing. More than 1,600 people have signed a petition urging Mr. Davidson to re-examine the evidence.

But back home, Mr. Tiede’s star has faded.

Robert Green knew Mr. Tiede before the crime and was on the grand jury that indicted him. He said 17 years behind bars for murder was not enough time.

“I don’t hate Bernie,” he said. “I just think that justice has been served.”

His sentiments echo those of others around town who are talking about what might happen next in the sordid story.

Finishing up their meals at Daddy Sam’s BBQ & Catfish just off the town square, Destiny Guin and her daughter Diana Pittman said the abuse that Mr. Tiede said he experienced was no excuse for his crime.

“He’s a coldblooded murderer,” Ms. Guin said, shaking her head. Mr. Tiede could have walked away, she said, but he did not want to give up the widow’s money.

Ryan Gravatt, a spokesman for Mrs. Nugent’s family, said they appreciate “those in Carthage who believe in protecting vulnerable elderly women.” No amount of hindsight, he said, can change that Mr. Tiede shot their mother and grandmother in the back at close range. “We believe Mr. Tiede deserves to serve his full sentence,” the family said through Mr. Gravatt.

These days, Ms. Davidson said, her husband can hardly pick up the phone or go to the grocery store without hearing from someone who wants to make sure Mr. Tiede stays in prison.

The pressure is just as strong now as it was in 1999. It is tough on their family. But just as he did 15 years ago, Ms. Davidson said, her husband will do what the law requires.

“It’s not always easy,” she said, “but that’s his job.”

Correction: February 16, 2014 

An article last Sunday about Bernie Tiede, who was convicted in 1999 of killing Marjorie Nugent, referred incorrectly to Dr. Richard Pesikoff of the Baylor College of Medicine, who commented on the case. He is a clinical professor of psychiatry, not a clinical professor of psychology.

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