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Bernie headed back to prison for life

By Glenn Evans
April 22, 2016 at 9:24 p.m.
Updated April 23, 2016 at 12:10 a.m.

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HENDERSON — Bernie Tiede, the murderer whose story formed the basis for a Hollywood movie that temporarily won his freedom, is returning to prison for life.

A 10-woman, two-man jury deliberated the ex-funeral director’s fate about four and a half hours before returning the maximum sentence, mirroring the one another jury handed him in 1999.

The sentence: 99 years to life in prison.

Tiede, 57, stood with his defense team as Visiting Judge Diane DeVasto pronounced the jury’s unanimous decision. Jodi Cole, the attorney inspired to fight for his temporary freedom by the 2011 movie about his doomed relationship with 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, placed her hand to the small of his back.

Tiede returned to the defense table wearing a stunned expression. Moments later he was led away.

“We proved to them,” Nugent’s son, Rod Nugent Jr., said as the crowd that packed the courtroom dispersed. “We’ve been dying to tell this story for years and years, and we finally proved it in a court of law.”

Tiede, in 1999 and again Friday, received a life sentence for the Nov. 18, 1996, shooting of the elderly Carthage oil widow he’d befriended after officiating her husband’s funeral in 1990.

This trial, however, highlighted $3.6 million of the 81-year-old Nugent’s wealth that flowed to Tiede during the six years in which he became her bookkeeper, traveling companion and personal assistant.

Jurors also heard witnesses who described a physical romance that grew between the octogenarian and the middle-aged, closeted gay man and church choir singer.

“You want to take everything about my family and make it dirty and nasty,” the victim’s granddaughter, Shanna Nugent, told Tiede during a victim’s impact statement. “And the truth is, that’s what you are.”

DeVasto advised lead defender Mike DeGeurin that he has 30 days to file notice he will appeal the sentence.

She also reminded the parties of the felony theft indictment that still hangs over Tiede.

“We need some resolution on that,” DeVasto said of the untried charge in Carthage’s 113rd District Court. “I don’t plan on being back in Carthage anytime soon, but I’ll do whatever you request of me.”

Tiede did not take the stand in his defense during 13 days of testimony that ended by lunchtime Friday.

He faced the full punishment range under sentencing statutes in place when he was convicted in 1999 — which did not include the more recent, and rigorous, jury option of life without the possibility of parole.

Tiede was temporarily freed in 2014 after his original prosecutor, Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, said he believed Tiede deserved a lesser sentence because of new evidence related to the claims of sexual abuse Tiede suffered as a minor.

Friday morning, prosecutor pro tempore Lisa Tanner brought her rebuttal psychiatrist to counter Tiede’s defense that a dissociative episode, rooted in childhood sexual abuse and triggered by Nugent’s domineering abuse of Tiede, triggered a state in which Tiede murdered Nugent, hid her body in a deep freeze and went on with his life.

Financial documents showed Tiede had spent $557,000 more of Nugent’s money while her body lay in her freezer after he shot her four times in the back, a final shot as he pressed the .22-caliber rifle to the back of her blouse as she lay face-down in her driveway at the home she and Rodney Sr. had completed within a year of his death.

While the defense’s star witness, the 1999 state witness Dr. Edward Gripon, testified Tiede committed the murder in a dissociative state, prosecutors Tanner and Jane Starnes brought their own psychiatrist.

Dr. Michael Arambula testified the former mortician experienced mere “depersonalization,” a more common phenomenon people experience describe as being outside their body, watching themselves act.

It’s a common description Arambula said he hears from convicted murderers.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose staff prosecuted Tiede in the retrial after Davidson recused himself from the case, praised the jury.

“Our prosecutors and staff work tirelessly for the people of Texas, and we thank the jury for their service and diligent work in ensuring a just verdict,” he said in a statement.

Not all members of the Nugent family were pleased by the verdict.

“I’m saddened by it,” the victim’s nephew, Joe Rhodes, said outside the Rusk County Justice Center, noting the nearly 17 years Tiede served before he was freed in 2014, based on new evidence Tiede had been sexually abused as a boy, trauma the defense said Tiede relived under Nugent’s domineering control. "I feel like he’s put in plenty of time."

"Bernie," the dark comedy inspired by Tiede’s case, starred Jack Black, who portrayed Tiede as a quirky, friendly man who sang in the church choir, helped local residents start businesses and was beloved by Carthage residents.

Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine in the film, was portrayed as crotchety and disliked by most of the town and who constantly insulted Tiede. Nugent’s family has long protested how the widow was presented in the movie, saying Tiede manipulated their mother and grandmother to steal from her and should remain in prison.

Since his release, Tiede had been living at the Austin home of filmmaker Richard Linklater, who directed “Bernie” and witnessed much of the retrial.

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