Courtesy of Samuel Haun Photography
I’m PROUD to sign this petition for Bernie, and am so happy that the particulars of his situation have come to many people’s attention due to the movie. “Bernie” is not an activist film, in the traditional sense. That was not intended. However, I think that the movie’s ending has started to get a lot of people thinking about the nature of our criminal justice system, and how arbitrary and disproportionate punishments can end up being.
Initially, I thought we would be telling a much different story about Bernie. I read Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article in January of 1998. We met and started discussing Bernie while his case was still pending. It actually looked as if Bernie might not get much time at all for the murder of Mrs. Nugent, because he was so well liked in the community. I was intrigued with this story on so many levels, but the relationship between Mrs. Nugent and Bernie seemed the most fascinating and enigmatic. Skip and I attended some of the trial after it was moved from Panola County to San Augustine. We got to see all of Bernie’s testimony, and soaked up the environment of the proceedings. I remember studying Bernie intensely, thinking about whether he was really the nice guy that everyone thought he was, or whether he was some kind of psychopath who had everyone fooled. During the trial, I noticed the kindness in the way Bernie spoke, his gentle demeanor, and his true remorse. My personal perception of him led me to agree with the majority of the people who knew Bernie: he was a truly good guy who had somehow done a horrible thing.
Even though it felt like the trial had not gone well for Bernie, I was still completely surprised when he received a life sentence. My potential movie idea changed from Bernie possibly getting off too lightly, to him getting punished way too harshly. Yes, that’s right, I’m not that much of a bleeding heart. In short, it seemed like he was prosecuted and sentenced as if his crime was a calculated, pre-meditated act, while the evidence showed something different. So much just didn’t make sense. To me, and almost anyone else who analyzed this case at all, it seemed that Bernie’s offense should have been some kind of second-degree murder, considering all of the surrounding circumstances. From that day on, I’ve paid special attention to exactly what kind of sentences people convicted of homicide receive. Bottom line, many absolutely heinous murderers get 30 years, and many people convicted of “domestic” homicides receive about 10-20 years. I’ve asked every judge and lawyer who I’ve ever encountered over the years, if they have EVER heard of a trial being moved because the defendant was too well liked in his local community. No, never.
Over the decade or so between the trial and the actual making of the movie, I was always kind of haunted by Bernie’s fate. When I thought of his life in prison, I imagined the very worst. I did grow up in the prison town of Huntsville, after all. Once the movie looked like it was going to happen, I started corresponding with Bernie. A few weeks before production, Jack Black and I were able to visit him.
There Bernie was, with white hair now, but with the same gentle demeanor he had at the trial, and the same smile. I was so happy and relieved to see that he had somehow made a life for himself there, that he was the same positive person that he’d been on the outside. He was teaching classes and helping others, continued to be very involved in the church, and spending a lot of his time in the craft shop making memorials for Carthage residents who’d passed away. We got to meet a lot of his friends in the craft shop – a good group of guys. I felt so much better about his situation on one level, because he was not living in the absolute hellhole I’d envisioned and his spirit wasn’t broken. However, I was sorry for him on another, more obvious, level, because of his limited access to the internet and movies, and world in general. I was also sorry that he had only bad, unhealthy food to eat, not to mention that he had to live with a large percentage of his fellow inmates who were looming around, who looked like they really DID belong in there.
Spending time with Bernie that day was huge for us. Jack obviously got so much out of it. For me, hearing Bernie talk about Mrs. Nugent, both the good times and also the reason he wasn’t able to just leave (“I was her only friend – I was all she had”), sort of put the final pieces of the puzzle together for me. The world has a way of punishing us for our weaknesses, and Bernie’s truly fatal flaw seemed to be that he just couldn’t bear to hurt anyone’s feelings, even someone who was so hateful and possessive of him. He cared, and wanted to be liked, too much. As in so many of these unfathomable domestic tragedies, the abused partner was still too attached to leave, but also couldn’t go on. Something had to give.
Bernie speaks so positively about everyone and his life experiences. He told me once he only regrets “a few seconds” of his life. I asked Bernie at some point what he would want to do if he ever got out, and he said he’d like to advocate for the many people inside prisons who have no one.
Jack and I both came away asking ourselves what this sweet, intelligent man was still doing in there. We discussed the issue of why our tax dollars were being used for Bernie’s incarceration, when he could be such a positive presence in society. It is hard for many of us to grasp, or even care, about the nuances of the sentences handed down to convicted felons, and this doesn’t seem like a case such as Hurricane Carter, The Memphis Three, or (locally) Michael Morton, where an incarcerated person is actually completely innocent of any crime. It seems that Bernie did it, and unlike the estimated 500,000 non-violent drug offenders that crowd our prisons, the crime wasn’t victimless. A murder or manslaughter shatters lives and communities, and many affected never get over it. However, there are still all of these specific circumstances in Bernie’s case that are forever staring us in the face. The life sentence just doesn’t seem right.
In 2013, Bernie will complete his 15th year behind bars…about the time a model inmate would probably be getting out if he’d been convicted of a 2nd degree murder. It might seem like an uphill battle to try to get a sentence reduction; but I applaud attorney Jodi Cole for her interest in Bernie’s case, along with everyone who can take a little time to try to make a difference in his life. I consider Bernie a true friend, and would so happily do anything that might result in him getting a chance to re-engage in society. I’m sure he’d once again be a great citizen and friend to many.