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New Sentencing Trial for Bernie Starts Wednesday

Bernie Tiede — who in 1996 killed his elderly companion, Marjorie Nugent, and inspired a Richard Linklater dark comedy — could learn in just a few weeks whether he'll remain free, return to a life sentence or land somewhere in between.

Bernie Tiede, who had been imprisoned since 1997 for the murder of Marjorie Nugent, was released from the Panola County Detention Center in May 2014. He was released on the condition that he live with filmmaker Richard Linklater, director of the movie "Bernie."

Convicted murderer Bernie Tiede – who in 1996 killed his elderly companion, Marjorie Nugent, and inspired a Richard Linklater dark comedy that hit movie screens 15 years later — could learn in just a few weeks whether he'll remain free, return to a life sentence or land somewhere in between.

Tiede's history as sexual abuse victim when he was a teenager was not mentioned during his first trial and might have swayed jurors to impose a lighter sentence, his supporters argue. A second jury will now revisit the sentencing question.

Jury selection begins Friday in Henderson, and opening statements will follow on Wednesday. The trial, which was moved from Panola County, is expected to take three weeks.

The 20-year saga began in the East Texas town of Carthage when Tiede, a popular former mortician, ended what he called an abusive relationship by gunning down Nugent in the home they shared. She was 81.

"I had thoughts of hitting Marjorie in the head with a bat or anything for a couple of months prior to November the 19th, 1996, but I did not want her to suffer," Tiede said in his 1997 confession. "She had become very hateful. She had become very possessive over my life. She was now evil and wicked. But I still cared for her."

Tiede had known Nugent for years and became her caretaker and travel companion after her husband died in 1990. Tiede shot Nugent four times in the back and placed her body in a freezer, hidden under food items. He concealed her death for nine months.

Tiede’s original trial was moved from Panola County to San Augustine County because of his popularity in the Carthage community. At trial, Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson requested the maximum life sentence for Nugent's murder.

Supporter Linklater, who directed the film "Bernie" based on the events, said he attended some of the trial in 1999.

"The gulf between the jury and Bernie's 'otherness' was so vast it seemed insurmountable. I'm not even sure that he would have been spared the death penalty if it had been a capital case," the director said in a January column for TribTalk, the Texas Tribune's op-ed publication.

Linklater said because he grew up in East Texas, the people in this case and the Carthage community seemed familiar, and he made movies about stories that felt personal to him. The director said he came away pitying Tiede.

"I had heard and seen all of Bernie's testimony. I was looking closely for a steely killer hiding underneath the friendly veneer. It just wasn't there," Linklater recalled in the op-ed. "Bernie cried several times when he was talking about Mrs. Nugent. He really seemed like a nice, highly sensitive guy who had done a very bad thing."

(Editor's note: Richard Linklater was interviewed by Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith on March 22, 2016, for an upcoming episode of the PBS interview program "Overheard with Evan Smith." This sneak preview is courtesy of KLRU-TV.)

In the film "Bernie," Jack Black plays Tiede, Matthew McConaughey channels Davidson and Shirley MacLaine portrays Nugent. But Shanna Nugent, granddaughter of the deceased, has argued that "Bernie" does not correctly depict Tiede or Nugent.

"Do you remember in the movie Bernie when Bernie Tiede, played by Jack Black, shot the cantankerous Marjorie Nugent in the back? And how Marjorie writhed on the ground wounded and bleeding, but not dead, so Bernie shot her three more times at point-blank range?" the granddaughter said in a 2014 TribTalk piece.

"If you don't, it's because it didn't happen like that in the movie," she said. "But Bernie Tiede did murder my grandmother, Marjorie Nugent, this way."

All parties of the case and the Nugent family are currently under a gag order.

After the Austin premiere of "Bernie" in 2012, a campaign began to free Tiede. Attorney Jodi Cole, who approached Linklater, stepped in and began reviewing Tiede's case. She argues that his confession was coerced because he was threatened with the release of sex tapes featuring him and married men. She also argues now that Nugent used him to launder money.

After Tiede's sexual abuse claim came to light, and a later psychiatric evaluation, Davidson pushed for Tiede's release in a 2014 affidavit and said his sentence should be time served.

"I did not know that Mr. Tiede had been sexually abused as a child, and I did not know the extent of the decedent's encroachment on his reasonable personal boundaries. ... I feel now that a life sentence is an inappropriate sentence for Mr. Tiede," he said in the affidavit.

Tiede was released on bond in 2014 and ordered to live in Linklater's home in Austin.

Davidson's office initially appeared poised to accept a plea agreement setting the time Tiede has already served as his sentence. But his office recused itself from the case in 2015. That deal is off the table, one of the new prosecutors, Texas Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner, said in a court filing.

"This is not the state's recommendation and no plea agreement currently exists," she wrote in a response to a Tiede motion.

In an email Wednesday soliciting contributions for Tiede's defense, Black and Linklater said the attorney general's office has a record of disregarding gay civil rights. They also contended that some Nugent family members are "major Republican operatives" in Texas and suggested that has contributed to the office's pursuit of prison time.

"There is no other explanation for the attorney general's complete disregard of elected Panola County Criminal District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson's sound agreement to recommend a sentence of time served," the actor and director wrote. "Endless resources, power, deep conscious or unconscious homophobic cultural biases ... it's a lot to overcome, so we're trying to raise additional funds to help keep Bernie out of prison (immediate goal: 100K)."

The Nugent family has argued that Hollywood has stepped in and hijacked justice. Tiede's abuse and questions about how he handled Nugent's money before and after she died were not depicted in the film.

"None of this is in the movie. It's too real. It doesn’t fit with how Hollywood needs to change a story to engage an audience," the granddaughter said in the op-ed. "The movie also didn't tell you that my family found my grandmother stuffed in her freezer nine months after Tiede murdered her. Her murderer wasn't the chubby, kindly Jack Black. Is the wave of sympathy for the man or for the character?"

Disclosure: Richard Linklater is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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