TIME movies

Real-Life Convicted Murderer Released to Live in Filmmaker’s Garage

For real

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Even movies that don’t get sequels can have a life after the credits roll. In the case of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie, that part of the story is almost as surprising as the story that initially inspired the movie: it involves a convicted murderer living by court order in a Hollywood director’s garage.

Here’s what happened:

In 1997, in Carthage, Tex., a rich and elderly widow was found dead in a freezer, where she had apparently been kept for months before anyone looked for her. The much-younger Bernie Tiede — an assistant funeral director who had bonded with the deceased during preparations for her husband’s funeral — confessed to shooting her and putting her into the appliance but, contrary to the way things usually go when someone confesses to a murder, the town of Carthage took Tiede’s side. Tiede was much more well-liked than his victim, and the story was fascinating enough to merit a long treatment by Skip Hollandsworth in the following January’s Texas Monthly.

Hollandsworth’s article became the basis of Bernie, which he and Linklater co-wrote. As Linklater told The A.V. Club, he was present at the original trial, which took place outside of Carthage where sympathy for Tiede would not affect the jury. Tiede was sentenced to life in prison and that could have been the rest of his tale.

But on May 6, nearly two decades later, the story took a turn. As reported by the Texas Tribune, the judge considered new evidence about Tiede’s psychological state, abuse he underwent during childhood and testimony by a psychiatrist who said that Tiede was unlikely to be a danger to others. Bernie was crucial to the developments in the case, as the publicity attracted new lawyers who convinced Tiede to go public about being sexually abused, a fact he had hidden until recently. The new evidence pointed to the murder being a crime “of sudden passion,” committed without premeditation during a dissociative episode; such a crime would be punishable by a shorter term that Tiede originally received.

Local news station KLTV live-tweeted the trial, including the moment that Bernie Tiede and Bernie were once again linked:

Tiede was eventually released on personal bond to wait for a new sentencing hearing. The terms of the bond included a variety of measures, one of which was to live in a designated residence…which will be in Austin, in Linklater’s garage apartment.

In some ways, this seems like it will be the final chapter of the Bernie story. The Tribune notes that part of the reason for Tiede to live in Austin rather than return to Carthage is that the good will that made him newsworthy has largely disappeared; the victim’s family is unhappy with the latest developments, too. On the other hand, don’t write this story off as closed yet: Skip Hollandsworth told the Dallas Morning News, in light of Tiede’s release, that every twist in Tiede’s story has been unbelievable, and this is no exception to the rule. “A team of screenwriters, sitting all day in a room, couldn’t have come up with this one,” he said.

As for Linklater, his next moves are easier to guess. His new film Boyhood arrives in U.S. theaters on July 11.

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