Convicted murderer Bernhardt Tiede II, better known as Bernie to those who saw the eponymous film that helped win his freedom, returns to an East Texas courtroom Tuesday fighting the state's efforts to send him back to prison.
While Tiede's guilt is not in doubt, his life sentence for killing 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in 1996 has since been dismissed. A visiting state district judge in Panola County will begin considering motions that will shape a hearing set for next January to determine his new sentence.
Tiede killed Nugent at the home they shared in Carthage, shooting her four times in the back. The former mortician, who had met his wealthy companion at her husband's funeral about six years earlier, placed her body in a freezer, hidden under food items.
Tiede managed to conceal Nugent's death for nine months, spending or giving away much of her money in the meantime, a story captured in the 2011 dark comedy "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black.
Tiede was convicted in 1999 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. But after "Bernie," Tiede's attorney presented evidence that he was sexually abused as a child, a mitigating factor that might have persuaded the jury to give him a lighter sentence had it been known at the time of his trial.
With the agreement of the original prosecutor in the case, visiting state District Judge Diane DeVasto allowed Tiede to be released on bond while his sentencing is revisited. A condition of his release was that he live in Austin with Linklater.
The Panola County District Attorney’s Office initially appeared poised to accept a plea agreement setting the time Tiede has already served as his sentence. But that office has recused itself from the case and that deal is off the table, the new prosecutor, Texas Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner, said in a court filing.
"This is not the state's recommendation and no plea agreement currently exists," Tanner wrote in a response to a Tiede motion.
The state's and Tiede's attorneys are under a gag order. Nugent's family would not comment before Tuesday's hearing.
Tiede's attorney, Jodi Cole, will ask DeVasto to allow testimony from Todd Hine, who says Tiede's uncle, Elmer Doucet, molested him as a boy. Tiede claims he also was a victim of his uncle as a child.
In other motions, she will ask that the defense be allowed to take depositions from some of Nugent’s relatives, issue a gag order on them, their attorneys and their spokespersons and remove from the record filings from parties besides the state and Tiede's. Nugent’s family filed court papers objecting to his release.
Tiede also still faces a 19-year-old charge of felony theft for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Nugent’s estate after her death. After his murder conviction, he was never tried on that charge. Cole is asking the judge to dismiss it because a speedy trial was not guaranteed.
The state will ask to have the re-sentencing — which will be done by a jury — moved out of Carthage, arguing that “the defendant’s murder case was immortalized by Hollywood in the movie Bernie,” and he’s popular and infamous already in Carthage. Tiede’s original trial was moved to San Augustine County because of his popularity in the community.