Jacksonville Daily Progress
A seasoned East Texas prosecutor portrayed on the silver screen by Matthew McConaughey met with local Rotarians Tuesday to discuss Bernie Tiede, the quirky murder defendant whose conviction and life sentence brought him an interesting measure of celebrity.
Based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” the dark comedy film “Bernie” was directed by Richard Linklater, and penned by Linklater and Hollandsworth.
Panola County Criminal District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson successfully prosecuted Tiede's case. On Tuesday, he kept more than 40 members of the Croup Rotarian Club in stitches as he recounted the hilarious twists and turns of this case primarily involving 39-year-old (at the time) defendant Tiede, portrayed on film by Jack Black.
Tiede ultimately confessed and was convicted of killing his elderly companion, 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent of Carthage.
And, oddly, not that many people in that particular community seemed to mind.
Tiede was almost universally well-liked. And Nugent, conversely, was described as a mean, mean, person who often treated others poorly. A product of “old money” she was portrayed on film by Shirley MacLaine.
“If Bill Gates himself had shown up and sat down beside her, she wouldn't have paid him any attention,” Davidson said.
Tiede murdered Nugent by shooting her four times and freezing her body so it wouldn't decompose.
The fact that Tiede was so vastly liked and Nugent wasn't proved a threat to the jury pool for Tiede's trial. Davidson requested a very rare “change of venue” in order to ensure a fair trial.
After he was convicted, Tiede was sentenced to a 30-year prison term that began in 1997.
The Bernie story was one of several about Davidson's career that he used to keep the audience laughing as they ate their fish during the lunch at the Cameron-J. Jarvis Municipal Library.
Bernie, the prosecutor said, was flamboyantly gay – so much so that he used money that wasn't his to purchase seven expensive cars as gifts to seven of his male paramours.
However, that's not to say Tiede was “out of the closet” per se – especially not to the Carthage community that adored him, Davidson said.
“It was really a hard case to prosecute,” Davidson said. “They kept saying, 'But he's so nice and she was so mean. Can't he just walk? And I said,, 'No, he killed her and spent a bunch of her money.”
Bernie was known for his wiles with older women and the way he was able to comfort them. Despite preferring the company of men, he also was known at times to sleep with the older women from whom he solicited favors.
During his trial, Tiede tried to convince the jury he killed Nugent because he “snapped” and that he was very sorry for his actions.
But that was not the case, Davidson said.
“That dog wouldn't hunt,” Davidson said to the Troup audience. “Y’all know what 'dog won't hunt,' means, right? Because if I went to Tyler and said that to a jury, I worry they'd think I meant a dog was was somehow part of the case.”
After Nugent was shot and killed and frozen by Tiede, it took authorities two days to unthaw her body for an autopsy, the attorney said.
Immediately after killing her, Tiede spent the next nine months pretending to the public she was still alive – as he spent her money.
The irony is, if Tiede had only wanted a year before he killed her, she would have probably died of heart congestion and he would have legally have inherited all her money, Davidson said. Under Tiede's guidance Nugent had already changed her will to do so.
But that's not what happened.
“In Texas, you can't inherit anything from someone you're convicted of killing,” Davidson said as the audience laughed.
Ultimately, Tiede was unable to relate to or form any bond with the jury selected for him in San Augustine, and they convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life in prison – a 30-year-sentence, reports show.
As thanks for his appearance, the Troup Rotary Club donated a copy of the film “Bernie” to their public library in Davidson's name.
As criminal district attorney, Davidson acts as both county attorney and district attorney and prosecutes both felony and misdemeanor cases.
One of Davidson's most-documented quotes in regard to the Bernie Tiede case came when he was publicly asked about Tiede: “How can you prosecute such an angel?”
Responded Davidson: “He's an angel all right – an angel of death.”