Cousin describes Nugent: 'I never met anyone sweeter'

WebXtra: Update from Bernie Tiede trial
Published: Apr. 6, 2016 at 12:02 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 7, 2016 at 2:09 AM CDT
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(Source: KLTV Staff)
(Source: KLTV Staff)

HENDERSON, TX (KLTV) - The prosecution and defense concluded opening statements Wednesday in Henderson during a new sentencing trial for convicted murderer Bernie Tiede.

Tiede was convicted of killing 81-year-old, Marjorie Nugent in 1996.

Texas Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner is acting as prosecutor in the trial. Tanner said Nugent wasn't Bernie's first victim and wasn't his last, saying he preyed on wealthy widows and their money.

Opening statements

"We'll present the facts that's not through Hollywood's eyes," Tanner said, referring to the 2012 film "Bernie." This is about a murderer con artist."

Tanner characterized the defendant as a murderer con-artist who used money from wealthy women who were not close their own families. She described Tiede as shooting Nugent once while she stopped to pet her dog, and then shooting her three more times at closer range. "You'll hear how he wrote himself a check for $20,000 the day after killing Nugent," said Tanner.

The defense presented a different portrait of Tiede, saying he became a close friend and confidant to her that suffered mental abuse at her hands. Defense attorney Mike Degeurin also referred to Nugent's strained relationships with family members.

"What is it about her personality, or other people's personality, that would cause that kind of fraction without no other real reason except that there was mental abuse going on?" he asked.

Degeurin told jurors about Tiede's childhood and the death of his father. He described the 81-year-old Nugent as a mean woman with an abusive streak who controlled people with her money.

"You have an abusive, wonderful little lady. But a mean streak and an abusive streak where she could control people with her money and her actions. She did that to Mr. Bernie Tiede, too," he said.

After a few years, Degeurin said, "Bernie wanted out of the relationship." He said Nugent insisted he quit his career to work full time for her.

Degeurin discussed how Tiede's history as a victim of childhood abuse impacted the defendant, his history in prison and the film about his life.

"The movie was not the reason that we're all back here now. The movie is the reason that we learned how important it is to consider all the things I'm telling you about Mr. Tiede and his relationship with Ms. Nugent in addition to (everything else)," Degeruin said.

Less than 30 people are in the court audience on Wednesday. The court stopped for lunch about 12:30 p.m. Judge Diane Devasto said proceedings would resume about 1:30 p.m. with presentation of evidence.

Of the 14 jurors, two are white males, three are black women, and the remainder are white women.

On the witness stand

After lunch, Marjorie's first cousin Ruth Cockrell, 82, of Carthage, took the stand.

Cockrell denied ever seeing Nugent act mean or abusive. She also said the cousins shared a close relationship.

"I never met anyone sweeter," she said.

Cockrell testified that in December of 1996, she asked Tiede repeatedly about Nugent's whereabouts. She said she grew suspicious that something was wrong but felt she couldn't tell others about her concerns.

"[Tiede] was so well thought of in town, if I was wrong I'd be the laughing stock of Carthage," she said.

When asked why she didn't tell authorities, she chuckled saying she couldn't do that without evidence.

She later added, "I didn't have any facts, I just had this feeling. I didn't think I could call the police department and tell them I felt suspicious."

Cockrell said her suspicion grew during the holidays in 1996, when Tiede told her Nugent was going to Ohio to visit her sister. She said she didn't see her throughout the Christmas season but Tiede continued giving her updates on Nugent's condition.

"He told me she had surgery. He told me he thought she was having mental problems and she just didn't want family to know," she said.

Cockrell alleged Tiede told her that Nugent was hospitalized in Nashville, but when she contacted the hospital she was told Nugent wasn't registered. Cockrell said her phone calls to the house went unanswered.

While Nugent was missing, Tiede would visit her home for dinner, Cockrell said. During one visit, he broke down in tears. When she asked him why, he responded, "I feel like I have lost my best friend."

She said she was devastated when she learned of Nugent's death.

"Because of his stature, he was able to fool me and a lot of people," she said.

Covering up a crime

The State next called Greg Kramer, a Lake Charles funeral director who received training from Tiede.  Kramer was asked about proper embalming procedures and he testified that freezing a body is not a proper way to preserve a body. He said his business doesn't even use cooling units.

From November of 1996 to August of 1997, Tiede kept Nugent in a home freezer.  Tiede's defense has repeatedly argued this act shows that Tiede was caring and wanted to properly preserve Nugent so that she could have a funeral.

Pre-trial hearings

In a pre-trial hearing last week, Devasto sided with the state saying there was no binding agreement with Tiede's attorney's on how long Tiede would have left to serve. Defense attorney's had claimed the deal was for 20 years in jail, nearly the amount of time Tiede already served.

Tiede was convicted in 1999 and under the original sentence was not eligible for parole until 2027. His life sentence was overturned in 2014 on a recommendation from Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, and a psychiatrist.

During the pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, the state called several law enforcement officials to the stand to discuss Tiede's 1997 confession, taken the same day Nugent's body was discovered in a freezer in her home. The majority of the witnesses called were former officials with Panola County Sheriff''s Office.

Defense attorneys argued that Tiede's confession was obtained after Tiede asked for an attorney and after he was detained without an arrest warrant.  

Editor's note: Due to a ruling by the judge, updates will be provided during court breaks. No live tweeting, updating or streaming is allowed while the court is in session. 

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