AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas mortician whose conviction for killing a rich widow and storing her body in a freezer inspired the movie "Bernie" was granted a new sentencing hearing Wednesday, after the state's highest court agreed that his life prison sentence may be overly harsh.
Bernie Tiede was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1996 shooting death of his longtime companion, 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent. But he was released from prison earlier this year after a lower court sided with his attorneys. A new sentencing date hasn't been set.
Tiede's attorneys argued that jurors should have been told he felt abused by Nugent and was sexually abused as a child. They also said the mistreatment by Nugent caused Tiede, now 56, to kill her during a brief dissociative episode, and that the sentence was too harsh.
Prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson, who pushed to convict Tiede in 1999, said he agreed and believed Tiede deserved to be convicted of second-degree murder, which carried a maximum 20-year sentence.
Nugent's family had asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to restore the life sentence. But on Wednesday, the court said the 1999 trial was marred by false testimony and that the jury should have heard testimony about Tiede's childhood abuse.
Family spokesman Ryan Gravatt said Nugent's relatives were disappointed and expect Tiede would remain free after being credited for time served in prison. They accused Davidson, the prosecutor, of being "star-struck" and said they will ask the state attorney general's office to take over the case for the new sentencing hearing.
"Bernie Tiede's story is not the truth. The truth is Tiede stole from Marjorie Nugent because of greed, he victimized her and Tiede executed her to avoid getting caught. He's a con, a thief and a killer. The public should never forget this," Gravatt said in a statement.
Nugent's body was found in a freezer at her home several months after she disappeared in Carthage, a town about 150 miles east of Dallas.
Interest in the case surged after the 2011 release of the movie "Bernie," in which Jack Black portrays Tiede as a quirky mortician's assistant beloved by the town. Nugent is depicted by Shirley MacLaine as a grumpy, unpopular cheapskate.