The “Bernie” Sentence’s Message: The Lives Of Mean People Aren’t Worth As Much As Those Of Nice People

Jack Black as Bernie, the nicest murderer you'd ever want to know.

Jack Black as Bernie, the nicest murderer you’d ever want to know.

“Bernie” is a quirky 2011 movie telling a strange and true story. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an oddly cheery mortician who became a small town community favorite for his kind deeds and upbeat manner. Bernie even befriends the town pariah, a mean, rich old woman named Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley Maclaine) whom he managed to reform–slightly–until she finally became even too much for him to bear, and in 1996 he shot her dead.

He was loved, she was hated, and the community (Carthage, Texas) rallied behind the murderer even though he hid his friend’s body in a freezer for nine months and spent about 2 million dollars of her money.  The pro-Bernie bias was so strong  prosecutors had to seek a change of venue, since no local jury would convict him. They got it, and a jury that knew neither charming Bernie nor his nasty victim found him guilty (because he was) and sent him to jail for life in 1997.

After the film was released, however, attorney Jodi Cole took up Tiede’s appeal. She discovered that he had a collection of books aimed at survivors of sexual abuse, and got Bernie to admit, for the first time, that he was abused as a child. Cole hired a psychiatrist who testified that Tiede’s abuse probably influenced the murder and his willingness to endure an abusive relationship with Nugent, until he finally snapped. This changed the mind of Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who told a judge Tuesday that he supported reducing the sentence to time served. State District Judge Diane DeVasto agreed. Bernie is now a free man, living in the apartment over the garage of the man who directed the film about him.

Justice? I don’t think so. Being abused as a child doesn’t excuse murder, and seventeen years for a killing with additional features like hiding the body and stealing the deceased’s money is grossly inadequate. A sentence is not supposed to be about the relative charm of the killer and the victim. It is a societal rejection of  the act of murder itself, and affirmation of the inherent sanctity of life. I do not believe for a minute that if Bernie Tiede was a black stranger in the town and Marjorie Nugent was a beloved philanthropist who rescued puppies and volunteered at the soup kitchen, his history of enduring child abuse would have resulted in such expansive sympathy for a killer.

Bernie was released because he is a nice guy and most people were glad to see his victim dead.  The message sent to all is that the law doesn’t care about nasty people as much as nice ones. That’s not justice, it’s not fair, and it isn’t right.


Pointer: ABA Journal

Sources: Wikipedia, ABA Journal



27 thoughts on “The “Bernie” Sentence’s Message: The Lives Of Mean People Aren’t Worth As Much As Those Of Nice People

  1. 1) In regards to the first trial: it certainly shows that Carthage, TX values nice (obviously guilty) defendants over their specific less popular victims. I’m not sure it can be perfectly generalized to valuing nice victims over less popular victims, nice defendants over less popular defendants, or even nice defendants over unrelated less popular victims.

    I really don’t think it can be generalized to racism, a gratuitous jab on your part. And I think that parting send off also loses it’s value as an analogy as you switched two variables (the characteristics of the defendants AND the characteristics of the victim).

    2) In regards to the appeal: Does mental illness not often weigh into lesser sentencing for crimes?

    • I didn’t mean to suggest racism, and in my example, there is no racism. I suggested a less integrated member of the community who did not get the benefit of an unreasonable and favorable bias, killing someone who did.
      I wasn’t talking about the first trial. Do you doubt that the collective guilt at having to imprison such a nice guy (who killed someone who “needed killing”) wasn’t a large part in the ridiculous sentence reduction?

      I’ll agree that the race of the hypothetical killer is confounding, but, you know, he would have been treated justly to get life imprisonment if he killed the nice philanthropist OR Bernie’s victim. I occasionally tee up too many issues, and this was such a case: the point is that Bernie, the white guy who is taken into the community’s bosom, is the one being treated against principles of justice. It’s not racism….which is treating someone adversely, unfairly and unjustly because of race. It’s irrational favoritism and partisanship—related, but something else, a positive bias. As a comparison, if black murderers are executed justly but more frequently than comparable whites, the blacks aren’t the ones being treated incorrectly. The white criminals need to be killed.

      Being abused isn’t a mental illness. It’s a life misfortune and trauma. Most people who have been abused don’t kill people. Bernie functioned extraordinarily well—he wasn’t mentally ill. The proper response to “he was abused as a child” is 1) I’m sorry. That’s horrible and 2) so what? He still murdered someone and spent her money.

      • Wasn’t the argument made that the child abuse affected his mental stability, especially in the realm of putting up with abuse until finally snapping?

        As for the “collective guilt impacting sentence reduction”… Maybe so, I’d need to read pertinent transcripts from the appeal.

        I forgot to add a #3, but you jogged my memory:

        3) how does your analysis of him (regarding the money only) change if there was an explicit agreement between the lady and “Bernie” to be as liberal with her money as he pleased? (I understood there was such agreement between the two)

        • 1. Yes, that was the argument, a classic “he had a tough childhood so that’s why he went bad—he’s a victim of society and man’s cruelty!” It was Darrow’s favorite. It’s crap. Effective! But crap. I thought it went out in the Seventies. “He was a foster child…an unwanted child…a poor child…he had learning disabilities. Almost all criminals have a disadvantageous past, and a lot of non criminals too.

          3. I’d say the deal is off if he murders her. I think we can assume she would have insisted on such a caveat if she considered it.

      • Gads, Friday afternoon and I can’t complete a thought:

        I do think it a very very important perspective to push: that the system’s imbalance may not be too many blacks are executed, but that their executions are just, and not enough whites are getting their just penalty.

        • Have I not mentioned that before? I have meant to, similarly with “the black conviction rate, sentencing and imprisonment proves racism” argument from Holder and others.

  2. NOTE: The original post had the dates right, but the math wrong. Bernie served 17 years, not 7. No question, 17 is more punishment, but the opinion stands.

    Kudos to Dave Elias for being the first one to flag the error. See what I say about public school? No, the real reason for the mistake is that I can’t believe its been that long since 2000…

  3. I’ve just recently discovered this blog, and am skimming through some of the articles. This one stands out to me, because of the complete range of emotions I went through reading the story. I recently read Bernie’s story after I read an article on Facebook about his release, and subsequently watched the movie on Netflix.

    I felt a multitude of different emotions upon reading/watching about this case. On one hand, my gut response to this was to feel horrible for the guy. Then I really stopped to examine the issue and realized, crappy situation or no, bitchy woman or no, this guy MURDERED someone. It was utterly shocking to me that I could even consider, even just for a split second, giving him a pass just because the lady was “mean”. I couldn’t believe that I was actually trying to justify his actions.

    The whole thing completely messed with my head, and left me with a weird taste in my mouth.

    At any rate, you seem to have an excellent blog here with much food for thought. I look forward to reading more when I have the time.

  4. I’m having problems with the facts here — a mortician wasn’t able to hide the body anywhere except a freezer? He either was mentally ill or the most incompetent mortician on the planet.

    • Well, for what it’s worth, his argument was that regardless of why someone went out or how someone went out or how loved or unloved someone was, EVERYONE deserves a beautiful funeral. His decision to freeze her was to keep her preserved for the day he could — I think– fake her death and then give her the beautiful funeral “she deserved”.

      Handling things earlier than that would give himself away or cause the body to decompose prior to his vision.

    • He was running the house, and he didn’t want to hurt the body, like any good mortician. The freezer is a standby..what would you have done with it? Bernie is weird. Weird isn’t mentally ill.

      • I would have cremated it … or put it in a coffin and had it buried under another name. I assume I would have been able to forge the paperwork for an assumed name and had a burial. It’s not like anyone would have questioned him.

        And didn’t you say he kept the body there for 9 months? Most incompetent killer/mortician ever!

  5. Although I will readily grant that “That’s not justice, it’s not fair, and it isn’t right”, one of the key features of the jury system is that it allows just such anomalies. That is, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It dates back to the origins of the institution, and it was meant as a safety valve so that just convictions (or, come to that, acquittals) wouldn’t arise under circumstances in which they would lead to rioting or worse. You can even find Edmund Spenser complaining in the sixteenth century that Irish juries weren’t convicting murderous robbers and proposing other ways of dealing with the problem, but those ways would only have made it harder for any justice to be maintained at all.

      • Perhaps I didn’t make my point clear enough. I was mainly commenting on the original situation, the one that led to seeking a change of venue. But over and above that, in relation to the later judge’s decision, that feature is engineered into juries, so the feature is present in the system as a whole anyway. It should not be a surprise if judges also bear that sort of flexibility in mind when carrying out their own tasks within that system; indeed, it would be ethical for them to pass nominal sentences in the face of unjust convictions. None of that makes it right for them effectively to vacate just convictions, but it does provide context to see how such things happen.

        You might also be interested in Henry VIII’s use of pardons as an instrument of his despotism. It allowed him to delegate many things to the Privy Council in his absence, since they could sign his name to Orders in Council and be pardoned for it, and it allowed political assassins to be sent out with pardons in their pockets ahead of need.

  6. here

    After meeting at her husband’s funeral in March 1990, the two began spending time together. In 1991, she changed her will to leave Tiede her fortune of about $10 million.

    Dr. Nugent said his father, who had oil and gas partners, had planned for his death by preparing a system of friends and co-workers to handle his widow’s affairs.

    “It appears this Bernie Tiede kind of systematically estranged my mother from all these people one at a time,” Dr. Nugent said in June. “At some point they became angry with my mother.”

    I suspect that a lot of support for Bernie Tiede is based on victim blaming,.

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