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Judge moves Bernie Tiede trial to Henderson

By Staff Reports
Oct. 27, 2015 at 1:07 p.m.
Updated Oct. 27, 2015 at 1:07 p.m.

Defense attorney Mike Degeurin, left, Bernie Tiede, center, and attorney Jodi Cole, right, during the hearing Tuesday, October 27, 2015, in the 123rd District Court at Panola County Courthouse in Carthage. (Kevin Green/News-Journal Photo)

CARTHAGE — Bernie Tiede faces a new sentencing trial in Henderson early next year after a judge in Carthage agreed Monday that a neutral jury in his murder case would be hard to find in Panola County.

“Panola County is not an appropriate venue for this case any longer — either for the state or the defendant,” special prosecutor Lisa Tanner told Visiting Judge Diane DeVasto in the 123rd District Courtroom in Carthage.

Tanner, who was appointed to the case in the spring when Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson asked to be recused, said the 1996 murder of Marjorie Nugent had been a community touchstone long before the 2011 movie, “Bernie,” which is about Tiede, her convicted killer.

“And, talking to the people of this community, the vast majority, they’ve formed opinions, strong opinions about the defendant’s character and Mrs. Nugent’s character,” Tanner said.

Tiede’s lawyers not only agreed the Jan. 11, 2012 sentencing trial should leave Carthage, but they wanted it out of East Texas altogether.

Mike DeGeurin, who joined the defense team Friday to take on a related theft charge against Tiede, asked the judge to move the trial to Houston or Galveston. Jodi Cole, the Austin lawyer who won Tiede a new punishment trial in May 2014, wanted the venue moved farther than that.

DeVasto, who is based in Tyler, said she believes a dozen impartial jurors, plus at least two alternates, could be found in a pool of 200 to 400 empanelled from a county closer to Carthage.

“I’m not ready to give up on the idea we can’t get a jury in East Texas,” DeVasto said.

Before the hearing adjourned, Tanner said she would be filing a motion seeking permission to have Tiede evaluated by psychological experts.

Tiede’s freedom, which came 15 years into a life sentence for Nugent’s murder, hinged largely on a claim that suppressed memories of childhood sexual molestation prompted an uncontrollable, violent outburst under which he shot Nugent.

DeVasto left pending a Cole motion to dismiss a felony theft charge arising from Tiede’s handling of his murder victim’s finances.

Surviving family members of the 81-year-old oil widow said Tiede stole millions from her, before and after fatally shooting her in the back and then stuffing her body into a freezer.

Leaving that dismissal motion untouched was at least in part to accommodate attorney DeGeurin’s 11th hour addition to the defense team.

The Houston attorney told DeVasto at the start of Tuesday’s hearing that he was not involved in the murder case. The judge later noted the two are intertwined, especially in the 29 boxes of evidence the state will electronically share with Cole and DeGeurin.

One more hearing was set Dec. 12 in Carthage. That hearing will settle housekeeping measures such as specific rules the judge will relay to parties in the trial, including witnesses.

The judge finally cautioned both sides from publicly discussing the case.

“It’s not a gag order,” DeVasto said. “But, I encourage you all, once again, (not to) discuss this case. We are trying to get a jury in the box.”

In documents filed this past week in response to the defense’s request to depose witnesses — including the son and four grandchildren of Nugent — Tanner writes that Davidson suggested Cole seek the depositions.

The Nugent family was “giving me hell, and I decided to give them hell right back,” Tanner quoted Davidson as saying.

“Such a motive for deposing a witness can only be considered harassment and serves no legitimate purpose,” Tanner wrote in the filing.

Outside the courtroom later, Shanna Nugent said she remained hopeful her grandmother’s killer will face a long sentence.

“This has been hard on my family without a doubt, and very stressful,” she said. “We are looking forward to having all of this settled by January. It’s been over a year (since Tiede was freed), so I don’t think there should be any delay.”

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