Dallas Morning News
By Tod Robberson
November 26, 2014
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has opened the way for a new punishment hearing for convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, while upholding a lower court’s decision granting Tiede “relief” from completing his sentence. It effectively means that an admitted, premeditated killer gets to walk free, for reasons I’ll explain below. This in spite of overwhelming evidence that Tiede killed his elderly companion, Marjorie Nugent, in a well-planned, premeditated shooting as various people were discovering he had embezzled more than $3 million from her. He stuffed her body in a garage deep freezer in her home in Carthage, then went out and continued to party on her money for months afterward.
With the help of Austin film director Richard Linklater, who produced the film “Bernie” about the events leading up to Nugent’s death in 1996, Tiede was released from his life prison sentence earlier this year on the claim that Tiede committed the murder while in a dissociative state brought on by alleged abuse as a child.
This claim was never made by his defense attorney during his original trial, and anyone who closely examines the evidence and timeline leading to the murder would understand that Tiede killed Nugent in cold blood to prevent her from telling others about the embezzled money. I am fully sympathetic if he was, in fact, abused as a child, but the homicide he committed decades later as a clear-headed adult had nothing to do with that abuse. And in spite of the sympathetic way Tiede was portrayed by actor Jack Black in the film, in real life, there is no sugarcoating his murder motive. He stole her money and was willing to kill to cover it up.
Because of the appeals court decision, it is now up to Panola County’s prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson, immortalized in Linklater’s film, to seek a new punishment trial. That’s unlikely, since Davidson is a friend of Linklater, entirely sympathetic to Tiede’s abuse claims, and entirely blind to the evidence trail pointing that he himself introduced in court to win Tiede’s conviction. Davidson has 10 days to file for a new punishment hearing. If he allows that deadline to pass, Tiede is free forever. And free to kill again.
“There is no happy ending here. A confessed, convicted murderer is free. And any chance for justice for my grandmother is likely gone,” Shanna Nugent, granddaughter of Marjorie Nugent, said in a statement. ”
A family spokesman, Ryan Gravatt, added: “Danny Buck Davidson is starstruck and he needs to recuse himself. A simple Internet search shows him arm-and-arm with the Hollywood celebrities who have been paying attorneys for two years to get Tiede a new trial. In light of this, does Davidson really represent the views of Panola County residents? No, he does not. The Texas Attorney General’s office should handle the re-trial.”
If Davidson truly is committed as an officer of the court to upholding justice, he must recuse himself immediately, appoint a special prosecutor, and let that person decide the next steps.
Folks, it doesn’t get more absurd than this. Our justice system in Texas now rests in the hands of a prosecutor blinded by the limelight of Hollywood. Linklater makes great films, but the ugly reality of justice in a murder case should never be subjected to the whims of a film director as the final arbiter.
It is worth noting the language in Justice Sharon Keller’s dissent. She notes that the appeals court pretty much ignored the amicus briefing filed by Nugent’s family, which clearly lays out a persuasive argument why Tiede should go back behind bars to serve out his full sentence. “The Court acts in accordance with the prosecutor’s [Davidson's] recommendation, but in doing so, it grants relief without articulating a rationale, without mentioning the fact that the family of the victim has proffered an amicus brief arguing that relief should be denied, and without addressing the arguments in that pleading,” she writes.
“Especially given the serious nature of the offense of which applicant is admittedly guilty (murder) and the questionable factual basis of applicant’s claims (his own self-serving statements), the Court ought to articulate a clear and persuasive rationale for granting relief. I suspect that the Court does not because it simply cannot.”
Keller cites the same written confession that I’ve noted in previous blog postings, where Tiede told investigators about how he planned Nugent’s killing:
“I had moved the rifle into the bathroom near the garage. [Marjorie] had walked out into the garage towards my car. I took the rifle and Ishot Marjorie in the back. She fell face first. Marjorie was still breathing heavily, so I shot her again. I may have shot her one more time. I didn’t want her to suffer. I then dragged Marjorie by the feet from the garage to the freezer. I had taken the food from the freezer. I placed her into the freezer and covered her with a Land’s End brand white sheet. I then covered her with the food. I took a water hose and washed the blood from the garage. I swept up the bullets along with some leaves and threw them away.”
“These actions hardly sound like applicant was “incapable of cool reflection,” as required by a sudden-passion defense,” Keller writes. “Applicant’s use, twice, of the past perfect tense in the statement seems to indicate that he had moved the rifle and the frozen food ahead of time, although his trial testimony offered an explanation for the rifle and indicated otherwise as to the frozen food.”