Less than two months ago, a judge in Panola County, Texas, ordered the early release of Bernie Tiede, the now-55-year-old convicted murderer played by Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s 2012 dark comedy, “Bernie.” One of the conditions: that Tiede live in Linklater’s garage apartment.
“It got reported strangely,” the director admits. “There were headlines like ‘Judge Orders Murderer to Live With Filmmaker.’ There were jokes immediately on the Internet, like ‘Zodiac Killer Crashing at Fincher’s.’
“Austin’s kind of a garage-apartment town, so it’s not a big deal for me to let Bernie live there while he gets back on his feet,” he continues. “(But it sounded) almost as if the judge had said, ‘OK, you Austin liberal, you want to let him out, well, fine. But he’s got to live with you!”
What didn’t get reported immediately was the fact that Tiede’s release marked the culmination of a roughly two-year concerted effort by Linklater and others — chiefly Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney who prosecuted Tiede for the 1996 murder of his 81-year-old companion, Marjorie Nugent, in the East Texas town of Carthage. Their goal: to reduce Tiede’s sentence to time served (17 years) in light of new facts dug up by Jodi Cole, a local attorney who became intrigued by the case after seeing “Bernie” and discussing it with Linklater at the film’s Austin premiere.
A psychiatrist’s report revealed that Tiede had experienced sexual abuse as a child, a detail that considerably impacted Davidson’s view of the motive for the crime. The report stated Tiede’s history left him vulnerable to unhealthy relationships, bearing out the notion that Nugent’s psychological hold on him had pushed him over the edge.
“My whole point in the movie was this: Can the nicest guy in the world actually be capable (of murder)?” says Linklater, who befriended Tiede while researching the film. “The answer is yes. So anybody who’s too sure of their own behavior … given the wrong relationship, who knows what anyone’s capable of?”
In looking back at what he calls a “fascinating, fascinating case,” the director reserves particular praise for Davidson (played in the film by Matthew McConaughey) for having the courage to reverse his stance once the full facts came to light.
“This is Texas justice,” Linklater says. “(Davidson) didn’t have to do that, but I always sensed he was a good guy.”
One of the case’s lingering ironies is that Davidson just can’t seem to win, partly due to shifting local opinion on the matter of Tiede’s innocence. While the district attorney was widely hated at the time for prosecuting a beloved fixture of his community (borne out in “Bernie,” which presents its subject as the most charming and sympathetic widow-killer imaginable), he has now been lambasted by those who believe Tiede should serve out his full sentence.
As for Tiede, Linklater says he has a therapist, a steady job as a paralegal, and a bicycle (a gift from his new neighbors), and is doing well, although he’s understandably keeping a low profile. And no, he hasn’t yet seen the movie that ended up playing a significant role in his release.
“It’s not like the guy got off or anything,” Linklater says. “Seventeen years is 17 years.”