Dallas Morning News
By Tod Robberson
Something unusual has occurred in Panola County, in East Texas, where Bernie Tiede shot an elderly lady in the back in 1996, then stuffed her body into a deep freezer, then won early release from a life sentence under bizarre circumstances. Apparently, the sheriff and district attorney in the case are at odds with each other, and the sheriff wants to put Tiede back in prison, where he belongs.
Director Richard Linklater filmed a fascinating and humor-filled version of the murder in the 2011 full-length motion picture, “Bernie,” starring Jack Black as the murderer, Shirley MacLaine as elderly victim Marjorie Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey as prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson.
Earlier this year, Linklater teamed up with Davidson to win the release of Tiede from a life prison sentence in one of the most unusual judicial proceedings this state has ever witnessed. Prosecutors don’t normally stand before a judge and declare that the convicted person — who freely admitted his crime and was sentenced by a jury — didn’t deserve the punishment he was given. But then, not every Texas prosecutor gets to see himself depicted in a full-length motion picture, and as I’ve written before, Davidson clearly was blinded by stardom and all the attention he received from Linklater.
Today, Bernie Tiede is living in Linklater’s garage apartment in Austin, largely because a psychiatrist testified that Tiede might possibly have been experiencing an out-of-body, dissociative episode possibly related to sexual abuse he possibly received as a child. The psychiatrist didn’t explain in the testimony why Tiede had absconded with millions of dollars of Marjorie Nugent’s money and why he continued to spend that money months after he had killed her. Nugent’s family had been urging her to confront Tiede about the missing millions at the time he killed her. He appears to have spent about nine months out of his body while he traveled and partied on Marjorie Nugent’s money.
Well, it appears that not everyone in Panola County is thrilled with Davidson’s decision to ignore the jury verdict, ignore the entire judicial process that led to Tiede’s conviction, and go with the entirely unproven hypothesis of a psychiatrist, then capitulate on Tiede’s release from prison. (The Beaumont psychiatrist who provided expert testimony, Dr. Edward Gripon, was disciplined by the Texas Medical Board in 2010.)
Panola County Sheriff Kevin Lake suggests the entire dissociative episode argument is nonsense. He has hired an attorney to represent the sheriff’s office in preparation for a potential retrial of the sentencing phase of this case. In Lake’s apparent opinion, Tiede acted in cold blood for motivations that had nothing to do with sexual abuse he might have received as a child. And in wake of the way Davidson has shirked his responsibilities as the chief attorney for the county, Lake apparently decided he had to hire his own attorney to do Davidson’s job for him.
Lake hired the Underwood Law Office in Carthage to handle legal work related to efforts by the Nugent family to contest Tiede’s release. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is now weighing whether his release was proper, and a decision could come any day.
The Nugent family is seeking copies of evidence, including financial records seized by law enforcers at the time of Tiede’s arrest, that would document the financial motives behind this murder. The sheriff’s office wanted to avoid releasing the evidence, arguing that state law allows the withholding from public release of information pertaining to to pending criminal investigations or prosecution.
As attorney Robert Underwood argued on behalf of the sheriff in an Oct. 10 letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, Tiede still faces a 10-count indictment “for unlawfully appropriating money” from Marjorie Nugent and her heirs “after Tiede murdered her.”
Underwood adds that the information sought by the Nugent family “is relevant to the specific investigation and prosecution in the possible new punishment trial in the murder case since Tiede acted in a knowing deceptive course of conduct over several months by withdrawing large sums of money and spending or giving it away. This conduct may be relevant to explain why Tiede murdered her and his her body in a freezer.”
Underwood adds: “The concealment of the body and deception in the [financial] withdrawals appears contrary to the ‘sudden passion/emotion’ as stated” in the findings of fact — based no Gripon’s testimony — that led to Tiede’s release. “The deceptive conduct and deliberate acts of Tiede for a period of nine months after the murder is relevant to prove the intentional murder and to rebut or counter the ‘new evidence’ which arose” in the Davidson/Linklater/Gripon hearing that led to Tiede’s release.
In other words: Sheriff Lake thinks it’s time to send Tiede back to prison.
I called Underwood for comment, but he hasn’t responded. I’m told that Attorney General Abbott has informed Underwood that he is ordering the release of the evidence to the Nugent family.
Stay tuned. This is about to get very juicy.
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