HENDERSON – Convicted murderer Bernie Tiede may have gunned down his victim, tossed her body in a freezer and gone on with life, but the brutal act in 1996 was an anomaly for the church-going, hymn-singing do-gooder, friends and supporters testified in an East Texas courtroom Wednesday.
That image contrasts sharply with the picture painted by special prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General's office, who have cast Tiede as a man who enjoys his comfort and relied on older, widowed women to fund those adventures. They say Tiede killed Marjorie Nugent to cover up his theft of the widow's money.
There is no dispute that Tiede killed Nugent, but a jury is now reconsidering what sentence he deserved for the crime. Originally sentenced to life in prison, Tiede was released after the 2011 dark comedy "Bernie" highlighted his case, and new evidence emerged detailing a history of sexual abuse that might have played a role in his killing of Nugent in her Carthage home.
Tiede's defense team spent most of Wednesday presenting witnesses, most from Austin, to discuss Tiede's character and demonstrate that Nugent and her family had problems before Tiede, a former mortician, came into the picture.
Three former classmates testified that Tiede had always been a nice guy and would not be a danger to society. Patrick Terry, owner of the Austin-based P. Terry's restaurants, said Bernie, who has lived in Austin since his release, is a model citizen.
"It was apparent that Bernie was trying to get his life back in order after getting out," Terry said. "I see Bernie out volunteering. I see the Bernie I knew in high school."
A member of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin for about two years, Tiede was open about his past, fellow congregants testified.
Tiede was upfront about his crime, said Mark Lett, 77, a fellow congregant and retired administrator with the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
"The man I know today is someone I would trust with my family," he said.
Special prosecutor Lisa Tanner pointed out to Lett that his flattering remarks echoed what many said about Tiede after he killed Nugent.
"One could reasonably assume that he's the same person now," Tanner said. Tiede might have been that nice, giving person, but "all the while he was misappropriating funds and ultimately led to the killing of Mrs. Nugent," she said.
Mixed with the character witnesses for Tiede were defense witnesses that directly and indirectly spoke to Nugent's personality.
Her sister, Merrell Rhodes, testified that Nugent accosted Rhodes' son by locking him away for refusing to take down a wasp nest. She also recalled that growing up with Nugent, 12 years her senior, was difficult because she was demanding, not easily satisfied and elicited fear.
"I was always afraid of her because I couldn't meet her demands," Rhodes testified.
Witness Darryl Primo testified that after Nugent's husband died, she was happy about Tiede being in her life and told him she wanted to spend her money with Tiede. "She intended on enjoying the rest of her life (with Tiede)," Primo recalled.
The defense will continue calling witnesses Thursday.