“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