Morning News' Tod "Wrong Way" Robberson Mislays Blame in Bernie Case

Categories: Schutze

commons wikipedia
C'mon. Richard Linklater made a movie. He didn't bust anybody out of prison.

Apparently my destiny is to spend the rest of my life writing about Tod Robberson, an editorial writer for the The Dallas Morning News with whom I disagree about every single thing on the face of the Earth. In my column in the print edition this week, I disagree with him about a car wash. For today's installment, I would like to disagree with him, if you will allow me, about a movie.

The movie is Bernie, a 2011 film directed by Richard Linklater of Austin and co-written by Linklater and Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth of Dallas, based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a 38-year-old East Texas embalmer convicted of befriending, then murdering 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a rich widow.

Robberson has a blog piece up today on the Morning News website reminding us of his continuing outrage over the recent release of the real-life Tiede from real-life prison, an event that Robberson blames entirely on the movie:

"Tiede's lawyer and Linklater went before a judge several weeks ago and convinced the judge to free Tiede from prison while his life sentence is being reviewed. Everybody in this case, including prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson -- whose job is to be an advocate for the people, not Tiede -- seems to have been blinded by the star quality of this case. They appear to have relied not on the facts of the case itself but on Linklater's dramatization."

Here's what is true in what Robberson writes: After serving 16 years of a life sentence, Tiede, now 55, was released last May when a judge ruled that new evidence entitled him to a re-sentencing hearing at which it was likely he would be permanently released. Linklater did appear in court. Davidson, the district attorney, also appeared and did endorse a reduced sentence.

Also true: Had a popular movie not been made about Tiede, he would still be in prison where he would remain until old age or death.

Here is what is not true in what Robberson writes: It absolutely is not true that Hollywood glamour, star power or the movie's sympathetic portrayal of Tiede had anything to do with Tiede being released, nor is it true that Davidson spoke in favor of a reduced sentence because of the movie. None of that is what really happened.

I explained all of this in a column a couple weeks ago. As a general rule, always trust Schutze, never trust Robberson. You'll come out ahead.

See also: Peeling Back Layers of Truth in the Bernie Case

The movie played a role in Tiede's release, because a lawyer who watched the movie guessed there was more to his history than the movie revealed. The lawyer wound up uncovering a history of severe childhood sexual abuse in Tiede's past at the hands of an uncle. That history was corroborated by multiple forms of evidence. The lawyer engaged a psychiatrist who examined Tiede and found that he was permanently damaged psychologically by the abuse. The specific form of damage the psychiatrist found fell within definitions in Texas law that would have ruled out a life sentence, had the judge at Tiede's murder trial known of the abuse and resulting condition.

Far from passively accepting any of this new evidence, Davidson reached out to the psychiatrist he had used in the original murder trial to knock down an insanity plea. That psychiatrist agreed to examine Tiede on the new evidence as well. Davidson told me he was shocked -- "tee-totally shocked" -- when the second psychiatrist, whom he had regarded as his own expert, agreed with the first one and said he, too, found in Tiede the condition that would have ruled out a life sentence.

As a human being and as a lifelong law enforcement officer, Davidson told me he is personally skeptical of most psychiatric excuses for evil, and I didn't get the impression he is totally sold on this one at all. But as a lawyer and officer of the court, he had to deal with what the law says. He told me his view was that under the applicable laws and under current standards and practice for early release, it is clear Tiede would be a free man by now if the court had known of the abuse in '99 when he was tried.

My impression from an hour-plus conversation was that Davidson is no fan of Bernie Tiede. He hinted darkly that if the Tiede case must be tried again from the bottom up -- a decision not yet made by the court -- a whole lot more evidence will come to the fore that nobody on any side of the story will find appetizing.

Robberson's empathy for the family of the victim is by no means misplaced. It's true that media and popular culture give short shrift to the wide concentric rings of pain that emanate forever from a crime like this to haunt undeserving survivors, probably including Tiede's own family, as well.

But this case is being driven by evidence and law. It's just not true to say Tiede got out of jail because people liked the movie, and it's deeply unfair to portray Davidson as some kind of silly fool gobsmacked by stardust. He's a lawyer and a lawman who's going by the law.

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

Jim,  Have you been following the events in this case?  It seems the family has produced forged checks written the day after Bernie murdered this women, forged deposit slips, dual account records, and a meeting with bankers to go over all the missing money that was cancelled on the day he killed her.  They also have a stolen credit card used to pay for a pizza party that night, and also have his hand written confession where Bernie states that he thought about killing nugent for months and moved the murder weapon to a better location. It all adds up to premeditated murder-- It looks like your good friend Hollandsworth bamboozled you...the real question is why?

Sotiredofitall topcommenter

Was an entertaining movie and the best work Jack Black has done.


I suspect the guy in the photo above is wearing a hair piece by the same guy who does toupees for Travolta. I use to date someone with a similar piece.  It takes about an hour to put on and a 1/2 hour to remove.  I didn't know that Hollandsworth lived in Dallas.  He is handsome and his hair is authentic, I think. 


I usually disagree with Robberson, too, but I think he's right on this one, Jim. By the standard they're applying in this case--something bad happened to Bernie as a kid, so we can't really blame him for blowing the old lady away and stuffing her in a freezer and spending her money--shouldn't/wouldn't most convicted murderers be eligible for release? (As you know, many of them claim crap in their childhoods made them do it.)  And: of course the glamour and star power surrounding the movie helped him. He's going to live with the flick's director, for chrissake.


@glenn.hunter It's the law. What, do you want the court to ignore the law because you think the law is stupid? What happens when you get charged with something and the judge decides to fly by the seat of their pants instead of following the rules?

JimSX topcommenter

I really don't disagree with the heart of what I think you are saying here, Glenn. In fact, Danny Buck and I talked about the fact that every bad criminal seems to come up with a horror story from childhood, but so do a lot of cops, E.R. Nurses, clergy and other people who decided to take their own pain and use it to make sure the same crap doesn't happen to other children. In other words, there is always moral choice. But the other commenters here are right. There is a term in the law, not in front of me so I'll get it wrong, but it's something like a crime of passion arising from an adequate cause. If you meet that standard, Texas law says you can't be sentenced to life. So there you have it .

Look, Robberson was just trying to tear Danny Buck a new one because I had defended him. It's like the car wash. People he writes about are collateral damage in his pursuit of personal resentments, of which he has a bunch. Speaking of moral choice.


Somehow Glenn, you've missed the point of this article altogether. It's not about guilt, it's about the sentence.


@glenn.hunterThe introduction of the new evidence doesn't cast doubt on the crime, but it does lower the allowable sentence.  He's still guilty of Murder, but the new evidence triggers a provision in state law which makes the crime of Murder a second degree felony instead of a first degree felony.

This is key because first degree felonies are punishable by a maximum of life, but second degree felonies are punishable by a maximum of 20 years.  Even if you assume that the judge gives him the maximum 20 years, he's parole eligible starting in year 10, and as a model inmate for 17 years, he would have already qualified for released.

Make no mistake, Tiede is guilty of murder, and these new events don't change that even in the eye of the law.  It's just that overlooked evidence led the court to apply a sentence that was not supported by the facts, and now that the evidence has been brought into the light, Tiede will have more than served the adjusted sentence.  Whatever the new sentence, it can't include more jail time than what he's already done, so there's no reason he should remain in jail while they sort the new sentence out.


@G_David I get the point exactly, G_David, and it's horse crap. Ask the family of the old lady who was murdered.

Now Trending

Dallas Concert Tickets

From the Vault