HENDERSON — Several witnesses doted on convicted murderer Bernie Tiede and others shared stories about victim Marjorie Nugent's temperament as an East Texas jury heard some of the final testimony Thursday in a trial to determine whether Tiede will return to prison.
It's clear Tiede, a former mortician, 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. In its third and likely final week, the trial has seen a cast of witnesses weaving threads of money, sex and power that divided a family and ended with Nugent's death.
Nugent was a wonderful hostess and generally nice, Tiede's sister, Anna Hoffman, testified Thursday, but "when we were together, it was whatever Mrs. Nugent wanted to do, and then she'd be pleased."
Her testimony matched the defense's effort to paint Nugent as a demanding and unforgiving wealthy widow, who Tiede says he killed because she had taken control of his life. In 1996, he gunned her down in her garage, placed her body in a freezer and went about his life as if nothing happened. Her body was discovered nine months later.
Tiede's friends, including a chorus singer and three fellow Trinity United Methodist Church congregants, all said Thursday that although he killed Nugent, his time in prison and his almost two years of freedom have shown he's been rehabilitated. They noted his inclination to include, volunteer for and help others.
Before Tiede killed Nugent, a rift between the widow and her family had become apparent. The genesis has had attorneys on both sides at odds. Tiede's attorneys argue that Nugent was a mean woman who alienated all those around her and even turned on Tiede, her last friend in the world, personal assistant of sorts and travel companion.
Nugent's former landscaper, Chris Sutton, said Nugent "was loving when she wanted to be," but criticized his lawn mowing skills and might have made a bet that he would not complete his studies at a local college.
The state's attorneys argue Tiede was drawn to and stayed for Nugent's money and plotted a murder to conceal his theft and mismanagement of funds. In the process, he shut out all other familial connections, they argue.
The defense focused on the future, asking most witnesses if Tiede can return to society and not be a danger. They all said yes.
Leo Cruz, a Travis County pretrial services officer who regularly checks in on Tiede, said he's created no problems. He checked in on Tiede once a week in the first year of his release and then moved to a twice-a-month check-in the following year, he said.
"He's done everything we've asked of him," Cruz said.
Combative testimony from Rod Nugent Jr., Marjorie Nugent's son, contrasted all the defense's points. The standoffish son said Tiede's hand was in his mother's struggles at the end of her life. The defense noted that he had a poor relationship with his mother, and was virtually disowned in a will.
Nugent's son said Tiede stole and misused millions of his mother's dollars. That his parents were tough on him or he had differences with his mother, the son said, doesn't change that Tiede took advantage of a lonely woman who had fallen in love with him.
The murder, first trial and "insanity" that was the movie were all taxing and unfair to Nugent's memory, he said.
Tiede should face execution, he added before leaving the witness stand.
"This should be a capital case."
Visiting state District Judge Diane DeVasto told the jury to disregard the comment. The jury could receive instruction on how to proceed with a verdict as soon as Friday.