Bernie: The True Story of an East Texas Murder

Skip Hollandsworth just can’t admit that Bernie Tiede conned him the same way he conned almost everyone else. Texas Monthly recently released a video of Hollandsworth discussing the Tiede story. In it, he continues to describe the story much as he has since first writing about it 20 years ago. And this time around, maybe halfway through the video, Hollandsworth said something so outrageous it made my jaw drop. But more on that later.

Having worked on the Tiede case myself—and having read every word of the original trial—I can say that Hollandsworth’s description of the story is (to put it charitably) woefully incomplete. To understand why it is first necessary to review his version of events.

In Hollandsworth’s version of the story—which became the basis for the film starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey—a lovable fellow named Bernie Tiede moves to Carthage, Texas and begins working at a local funeral parlor. Tiede quickly becomes the town favorite, acting in local musicals and befriending virtually everyone in Carthage.

When local oil magnate Hal Nugent dies in 1990, Tiede befriends his widow, Marjorie, at the funeral. Over time, Tiede and Marjorie develop a close relationship. Eventually, Tiede becomes Marjorie’s constant companion. In the movie, Marjorie is a nasty woman—really just a caricature. She abuses Tiede verbally (so viciously one wonders why he would spend one more minute with her).

Our dear lovable Bernie begins to wilt under the constant stream of verbal and emotional abuse. One day in November 1996, during a particularly brutal verbal onslaught, he snaps. As Marjorie is about to get into her car for a trip into town, Tiede sees a rifle sitting near the garage entryway. Appearing not to comprehend what he is doing, he grabs the rifle and quickly fires several shots at Marjorie from across the garage. Then, stricken at what he has done, Tiede places Marjorie in a deep freezer, where she remains for several months before being discovered by local law enforcement officials.

Upon the discovery of Marjorie’s corpse, Tiede confesses almost immediately to the crime. Because he is so beloved—and Marjorie so despised—the townspeople rally around Tiede, who remains a beloved figure in Carthage. But the local district attorney is having none of it. Danny Back Davidson sets his sights on putting Tiede away for life. Davidson’s refusal to bend to public pressure results in Tiede’s conviction and he was sentenced to life in prison. And that is where the original Hollandsworth story and the movie end. But there would be another chapter.

As you might imagine, members of Marjorie Nugent’s family attended the entire trial. Desperate to see Marjorie’s killer brought to justice, they cooperated with District Attorney Davidson and got to know him. So you can appreciate their surprise when they received a call from a reporter more than a decade later, asking for their comment on a hearing to be held in Tiede’s case the following day. You see, as far as they knew, Tiede was quietly serving his life sentence.

Unbeknownst to the Nugents, Tiede had secured a new lawyer and filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus. Tiede claimed that this new lawyer had become involved in his case after reading Hollandsworth’s article in Texas Monthly. Not understanding how someone like Tiede could commit such a terrible crime, this new lawyer began reviewing the case file. She discovered that among the items removed from Tiede’s home at the time of his arrest were three books on childhood sexual abuse. After visiting Tiede numerous times and pressing him on the matter, she got Tiede to admit that he had been abused sexually as a child. The lawyer presented this information to Davidson, who agreed to have Tiede evaluated by an expert witness. All of this occurred without anyone bothering to tell the Nugents.

The expert conducted one brief interview with Tiede in jail and then concluded that he had acted emotionally as a result of the childhood sexual abuse when he killed Marjorie. Represented by his new lawyer, Tiede then filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to be released from prison (essentially asking for a resentencing to “time served”) or, alternatively, for a new trial on sentencing in light of this “new information” about his purported childhood sexual abuse. And that’s where it got really weird.

District Attorney Davidson—the same prosecutor who built his reputation on putting Tiede away for life—agreed to Tiede’s request. Bear in mind, by this point Davidson had become something of an East Texas celebrity as a result of being played by McConaughey in the movie. Indeed, if you run a Google images search on Davidson, among the very first photos to pop up are pictures of Davidson with McConaughey and director Richard Linklater at events related to the film.

Whatever his motives, Davidson joined in Tiede’s motion to have his sentence reduced. Davidson claimed that, had he known this information at the time of the original trial, he would set have sought a much shorter sentence for Tiede. The lawyers appeared before a specially appointed judge, Diane DeVasto, and presented Tiede’s application for relief (the local judge had recused himself due to previous involvement in the case). With Davidson’s agreement, DeVasto provisionally granted Tiede’s application (only the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, can grant ultimate habeas relief; the trial judge can only grant relief provisionally in what essentially is a recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals).

Based on DeVasto’s ruling, Tiede was released on bond. By now, the media was all over the story. And, to the Nugents’ horror, almost all of the reports supported Tiede; the release was presented as a sort of “feel-good” story featuring Tiede as the victim! At this point, the Nugent family hired me to help prevent Tiede from evading his life sentence. From that point forward, I worked closely with Marjorie’s granddaughter, Dallas lawyer Shanna Nugent, who spearheaded the family’s efforts.

On behalf of the Nugents, I filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the Court of Criminal Appeals. In the brief, I pointed out numerous discrepancies in Tiede’s story and pointed the court to substantial evidence from the original trial supporting the jury’s assessment of a life sentence. Until the filing of our brief, the judges and media—and thus the public—had heard only Tiede’s side of the story (or, even more concerning, the story a reporter and filmmaker chose to tell). Our brief provided a full picture of the facts. And what facts they were! Here are just a few of the facts brought out during Tiede’s first trial:

(1)       Despite Tiede’s claims to have acted as a result of sudden passion, he admitted to detectives thinking about murdering Marjorie for several months before doing so.

(2)       Tiede’s access to the murder weapon wasn’t a matter of happenstance; he had moved the rifle from a closet to a spot close to where he killed Marjorie, further supporting his premeditation of the crime.

(3)       Tiede didn’t shoot Marjorie four times in succession from across the garage; his first shot from across the garage left her paralyzed on the ground, and he then walked over and pumped three more rounds into her from point-blank range.

(4)       Tiede was in financial distress before befriending Marjorie. After becoming her companion, he controlled Marjorie’s money, signed checks on her accounts, and pressured her into giving him a power of attorney.

(5)       After murdering Marjorie, Tiede appeared totally unaffected; he was the “same old Bernie.”

(6)       In the months after he murdered Marjorie and put her in the freezer, Tiede threw parties in her home, used her money to travel to New York and Paris, cashed checks made out to her, sent a letter purporting to bear her signature to Prudential seeking a wire transfer of $225,000 from her account, spent $50,000 buying gifts for friends, invested $40,000 in a business, purchased a coin collection for $12,000, and bought new crystal and furniture for himself.

(7)       During his sentencing testimony, Tiede was asked whether Marjorie was mean to him. Under oath, Tiede replied that Marjorie was possessive but “I wouldn’t say exactly mean.” So much for outrageous abuse!

(8)       Finally, in what I always have thought was the most damaging evidence to Tiede, the jury heard testimony after murdering Marjorie, Tiede took a trip to Nashville—accompanying and sharing a room with another elderly, wealthy widow.

The brief, with this far more complete statement of the case, had the immediate effect of altering the media coverage. Armed with the real facts, reporters began writing stories critical of Tiede’s release. One writer in particular, at the Dallas Morning News, wrote a series of stories harshly criticizing Tiede’s release and questioning Davidson’s failure to oppose it.

Despite our best efforts, a bitterly divided Court of Criminal Appeals granted Tiede’s application for relief by a vote of 4 to 3. But the court didn’t grant Tiede a release. Instead, the court ordered a new sentencing trial. The Nugent family then filed a motion seeking to have Davidson removed from the case and questioning a number of his actions. Shortly before that motion was to be heard in open court, Davidson recused himself. In his stead, two outstanding prosecutors from the State Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were appointed to handle the second trial.

Tiede got his second trial, with a second jury and a chance to blame his crime on alleged childhood sexual abuse. But this time around, the prosecutors were armed with an additional weapon they didn’t have during the first trial. You see, the Nugents and the prosecutors always believed that Tiede murdered Marjorie to cover up the millions of dollars he had stolen from her without her knowledge. But the judge in the first trial had excluded any evidence of this massive theft. This time around, Tiede wouldn’t be so lucky.

Tiede put on his evidence of childhood sexual abuse and claimed that he has murdered Marjorie in a fit of passion brought on by a combination of this childhood abuse and Marjorie’s treatment of him. In rebuttal, the prosecutors presented evidence concerning Tiede’s theft from Marjorie. For example, financial summaries in Marjorie’s personal computer (seized as evidence in the murder investigation) showed that she believed her principal investment account had a balance of several million dollars. Actually, unbeknownst to Marjorie, Tiede had drained it to almost nothing. And Tiede killed Marjorie shortly before she was scheduled to meet with the new trustee of her family trust—who no doubt would have informed her of the money missing from her accounts.

For the second time, a jury of Tiede’s peers examined the evidence and decided that he deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison. In the end, Bernie Tiede has had two full trials without convincing a single one of his 24 jurors that his crime was anything other than the brutal and vicious murder of a defenseless 85-year-old woman.

So, back to Skip Hollandsworth. Despite the mountain of evidence in the second trial of Tiede’s financial motive to murder Marjorie, Hollandsworth clings to his view of the story. That’s understandable. It can’t be easy to admit that in the most famous story of your reporting career, you got snookered.

But some things aren’t so easily explained. During his remarks on the story, Hollandsworth mentions Tiede’s affidavit concerning the alleged childhood sexual abuse, and then says:

Suddenly, this Gothic comedy completely does an about-face and becomes this nightmarish story.

Really? REALLY??? Until then, he thought the back-shooting of an 85-year-old grandmother was a Gothic comedy? Because the Nugent’s sure didn’t. I bet Marjorie—as she lay terrified, paralyzed, and dying on the floor—didn’t either.

I have thought about all of this and come to two conclusions: (1) Bernie Tiede is right where he belongs in prison, and (2) I really can’t stand Skip Hollandsworth.


Afterword: Most people know that Johnston Tobey Baruch handles civil appeals. But the firm also has been involved in high-profile criminal appeals and habeas corpus proceedings. In addition to working on the Nugent case, firm partner Chad Baruch successfully represented then-District Attorney Craig Watkins in the appeal of his own conviction for contempt and also has served as Dallas County District Attorney Pro Tem in a criminal appeal. If you need criminal appellate representation and think we can help, please give us a call.

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