The Texas Court of Appeals issued an opinion today, granting that convicted murderer Bernie Tiede's life sentence be set aside and a new sentence be determined.
Tiede was sentenced to life in prison for the 1996 murder of his 81-year-old longtime companion, Margorie Nugent.
The majority of the nine-judge panel agreed that false evidence was presented at the 1999 trial and that new, relevant evidence had been presented. Tiede's attorney presented evidence that an uncle sexual abused the convicted funeral director as a child and that Nugent emotionally abused him in the years before her death.
Expert witness, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon, changed his 1999 opinion in a 2014 affidavit. Gripon explained that he was unaware of Tiede's history of childhood sexual abuse or adulthood emotional abuse from Nugent.
In May, Tiede was released from prison on a $10,000 bond until a criminal court of appeals could make a final ruling on whether a new sentence would be determined.
The appeals court decision stems from new evidence in the case showing that testimony from a medical expert was false when he described Tiede as having an unremarkable mental-health history. New evidence explains his state of mind as "experiencing dissociation" when he killed his victim, according to court documents. Tiede admitted to the murder of Nugent, a millionaire, in 1996. Her corpse was found nine months later at her Carthage home about 150 miles east of Dallas, wrapped in a sheet lying among packages of frozen corn, pecans and meat. She had been shot in the back four times with a .22-caliber rifle.
Tiede met Nugent in 1990 at the funeral of her husband R.L. "Rod" Nugent, who had made his fortune in oil and banking. The two would grow close, taking trips around the world, and Nugent signed a will leaving her estimated $10 million fortune to Tiede.
He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. The jury rejected his claim of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause, according to court documents. Had his claim been accepted, it would have reduced the offense level to a second-degree felony. Under the sentencing, he was not to be eligible for parole until 2027.
Tiede spent 17 years behind bars for the crime. The case rose to fame after his story was portrayed in the 2011 film, "Bernie," starring Jack Black.
During the trial, Tiede testified that his relationship with Nugent was like "being in prison to some degree" and expressed feelings of "being choked, not being able to get breath" and "being smothered." Documents show that during the trial he told the court that he had no life of his own.
During the punishment phase testimony, Tiede's own medical expert, Dr. Mears, was not allowed to present his findings to the jury. Mears relayed Tiede's explanation for killing Nugent, saying, "he said when he shot her that he felt out of his body," which Mears said is "a pretty classic kind of dissociative feature."
Mears listed "a child history of trauma" during his testimony describing the causes of dissociation, adding that "occupations dealing with highly stressful situations," such as Tiede's job as a funeral director could contribute to dissociative features.
According to court records, that testimony was heavily undermined by the state's expert, Dr. Gripon, who said the defendant had an unremarkable mental-health history and would not support Mears' findings.
Financial information was also introduced during the punishment phase. Tiede paid $13,000 for tuition for one man and bought him a jet ski. He also spent $51,000 for a business called Carthage Awards and bought a friend an $11,000 pickup truck, in addition to other purchases.
Prosecutors argued against his claims of sudden passion, citing his own confession:
"I had moved the rifle into the bathroom near the garage. (Marjorie) had walked out into the garage towards my car. I took the rifle and I shot Marjorie in the back. She fell face first. Marjorie was still breathing heavily, so I shot her again. I may have shot her one more time. I didn't want her to suffer. I then dragged Marjorie by the feet from the garage to the freezer. I had taken the food from the freezer. I placed her into the freezer and covered her with a Land's End brand white sheet. I then covered her with the food. I took a water hose and washed the blood from the garage. I swept up the bullets along with some leaves and threw them away."
Prosecutors said the actions described in his confession "hardly sound like applicant was 'incapable of cool reflection,' as required by a sudden-passion defense.
In May, Panola County District Attorney Danny "Buck" Davidson said based on new evidence he believes a history of abuse and other factors led Tiede to kill Nugent. He told the court he no longer believed a life sentence was appropriate.
“I have made new, fully-formed assessments of the circumstances surrounding the shooting event, and Mr. Tiede's lack of future dangerousness. I now feel that a life sentence is an inappropriate sentence for Mr. Tiede," Davidson said.
Davidson added that new psychological findings and evidence of abuse were credible evidence and that something needed to be done. He said that given the new evidence, Tiede's sentence should be softened to a maximum of 20 years. If Tiede had been sentenced to 20 years in his original case in 1999, he would have already been released on parole.
In October, Nugent's family received their first look at murder evidence that had been locked up for 17 years. The family has said it would like to see Tiede back behind bars.
On Wednesday the family released a statement about the appeals court's decision.
“There is no happy ending here. A confessed, convicted murderer is free. And any chance for justice for my grandmother is likely gone,” said Shanna Nugent, granddaughter of Marjorie Nugent.
In the statement, the family expressed that they feel strongly that Davidson is mishandling the case and that they want the Texas Attorney General to take over Tiede's sentencing hearing.
“Danny Buck Davidson is starstruck and he needs to recuse himself," said Ryan Gravatt, a spokesman for the Nugent family. "A simple Internet search shows him arm-and-arm with the Hollywood celebrities who have been paying attorneys for two years to get Tiede a new trial. In light of this, does Davidson really represent the views of Panola County residents? No, he does not. The Texas Attorney General's office should handle the re-trial.”
"Sadly, the Court of Criminal Appeals offers no rationale for giving Tiede a new hearing, which ultimately sets him free. This is a sad day for justice in Texas. Hollywood - 1, Texas Justice System - 0," said family attorney Chad Baruch.
Tiede still faces a 10-count indictment for unlawfully appropriating money from Nugent and her heirs. He is currently living with Richard Linklater, the director of the film "Bernie."
Tiede has been ordered to return to Panola County. The Panola County Sheriff's Office said they have not been notified of the decision and no arrangements for his transportation have been made yet.
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