‘Bernie' Victim's Family Fights for Voice in Court

When the East Texas mortician who inspired the movie "Bernie" was let out of prison, family members of the elderly woman he killed found out about his release from reporters. Now, they're fighting to have their protests heard inside a courtroom.

Bernie Tiede's attorneys have opposed a request by the family of Marjorie Nugent to argue their side to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is still considering whether to formally approve Tiede's release from prison on bond this past May.

Tiede was given a life sentence in 1999 for shooting the 81-year-old Nugent four times before hiding her body in her freezer in the East Texas town of Carthage. Interest in the case surged after the 2011 release of the movie "Bernie," in which Jack Black portrays Tiede as a quirky mortician's assistant beloved by the town. Nugent is depicted by Shirley MacLaine as a grumpy, unpopular cheapskate.

Nugent's family hopes to persuade the court that Tiede should be sent back to prison -- and to push back against the movie's portrayal of the case.

"My grandmother was a real person," her granddaughter, Shanna Nugent, said Friday in an interview. "She can't tell you what happened and she can't defend herself, and the reason she can't is Bernie Tiede killed her. He stole her money and he killed her."

A judge in May ruled Tiede had been sentenced too harshly because jurors did not know he had felt abused by Nugent and that he had been sexually abused as a child. But while Judge Diane DeVasto let Tiede go free on bond, the Court of Criminal Appeals must decide whether to formally accept the sentence reduction.

Nugent family members did not find out about that hearing until after it was finished, Shanna Nugent said. They are now trying to persuade the appeals court to return Tiede to prison, sending a brief to the court in June that argued Tiede should have revealed the abuse when he was convicted and that it could not be considered new evidence now.

But Tiede's attorneys responded with an Aug. 12 letter arguing that Nugent's family needed to wait to make arguments until after sentencing was settled.

"This case needs to be decided objectively, using legal precedents and the record, without the outside influence of emotionally based public opinion," the letter said.

Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who prosecuted Tiede but now supports his release, and Austin attorney Jodi Cole, one of Tiede's lawyers, did not return phone messages Friday.

Nugent's family responded with an Aug. 21 letter arguing that the victim's family deserved to be heard, especially since Davidson now agreed with Tiede's attorneys.

Nugent family attorney Chad Baruch said he expected the appeals court to decide on Tiede's sentence without saying first whether it would consider the Nugents' arguments. The court could take months to make a final decision.

"We would like to be heard," Shanna Nugent said Friday. "There's no one else to present the opposite side."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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