Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Do We Know When Justice Is Served?

just (adj): fair, impartial; according to justice; due; deserved; righteous. [The Chambers Dictionary, 2005]

Justice is a concept that fascinates me, mostly because I find it to be nebulous and applied arbitrarily. I write the Cass Elliot crime series and in those books, the bad are not always immediately caught and punished. Which is the way I think life works many times, fairly or unfairly.

I've been thinking more about justice lately due to a recent bit of news that hit my slice of redneck heaven (more on that in a minute), and this blog post on why we need books about justice by fellow author Stephen Woodfin, where he said:

The law is nothing but a reflection of the customs and morals a society approves at a snapshot in its history. What the law favors in one decade, it may abhor in the next.
He gives slavery as an example. At one time, it was an acceptable practice under the law. In hindsight, we see slavery for the heinous institution that it is and the law has changed accordingly. To explain why we need books about justice, Stephen says:

...they nudge us toward a higher good. By approaching our society sideways, they demonstrate our blind spots and motivate us to reconsider where we are and where we are going.
Interesting. And true.

Now for the recent bit of news...

The little town nearest our spot of redneck paradise is suddenly struggling with the notion of justice. Seems its most famous killer, Bernie Tiede, might be set free despite receiving a life sentence for murder.


In case you aren't familiar with Bernie's famous crime, you can watch the 2012 movie BERNIE starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine; you can read my blog post about the accuracy of that movie; or if you're short on time, you can read the brief synopsis below:

*Spoiler alert* A rich old man dies, an assistant funeral director (Bernie Tiede) befriends the mean ol' wealthy widow (Marjorie Nugent), she gives him power of attorney over her assets, he spends on her behalf, she drives him crazy, he shoots her in the back four times, stuffs her in the freezer, and then continues spending her money and pretending that she's alive but unavailable. When her body is found about nine months later, Bernie gives a tearful confession, but nobody (except the District Attorney) wants Bernie to go to jail. *Spoiler over*

Bernie was beloved in the community when the murder happened in 1996. Lots of little old ladies were grief-stricken over his confession (not over Mrs. Nugent's murder, mind you, just over the thought that Bernie might go to prison for it). They tried to post bail for Bernie and when that didn't work out, brought treats for him to the county jail.

Bernie has served almost sixteen years of his life sentence for murder, a first degree felony. Why is his case being reexamined? Bernie has opened up about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hand of a relative and how Mrs. Nugent's controlling behavior cracked the protective mental walls he'd built around that trauma. Due to her mental abuse, he snapped and shot her.

A new lawyer believes these factors combined to make Bernie's shooting of Mrs. Nugent a crime of passion rather than premeditated murder. The difference? A crime of passion is a second degree felony with a sentence ranging from two to twenty years. If the court decides that a jury would've convicted Bernie of a second degree felony rather than murder, it is conceivable that he could be released in the near future for time served.

(In his favor, it's hard to find people who speak positively about Mrs. Nugent. By most accounts, she was downright ornery. But does being mean justify murder?)

Regardless of whether Bernie snapped when he shot Mrs. Nugent in the back four times, he cleaned up the crime scene and hid her body in her own freezer. He then continued to spend her money and lie about where she was until her body was found. Some say this is exactly what a child would do when he realizes he's done wrong. But Bernie was 36 when he killed Mrs. Nugent, not a child, and he carried on this charade for nine months. I cannot imagine the pain he experienced as a victim of sexual abuse, but to his credit, Bernie went to college, held a responsible job, and was a respected member of this East Texas community for a long time. In other words, he was a functioning adult.

And here we are back to the notion of justice, what it is and how it applies in this case.

What should happen to Bernie? In a statistically insignificant survey I conducted, 80% of five people questioned thought Bernie should serve his life sentence. One thought he should go free. Back in 1997 when Mrs. Nugent's body was found, most people supported Bernie. Now, rumor has it that most of the town thinks he should stay in jail. (This probably means that most of the little old ladies who so fiercely defended Bernie back in 1997 have died.)

What will happen to Bernie? Only time and the courts will tell. Will justice be served? Perhaps it depends on which crime we're looking at.

I don't think there's any amount of 'time served' that can provide justice for Marjorie Nugent.

Was justice ever served for the sexual abuse Bernie endured as a child? Not to my knowledge. 
Is it just or fair to try and compensate for the abuse he suffered by shortening his sentence for Mrs. Nugent's murder?

This, to me, is one of those times when justice becomes nebulous and arbitrary. I'll be curious to see what our legal system thinks about it all.

What do you think about justice?

photo credit: marsmet526 via photopin cc
photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc


  1. I am just glad he is behind bars-- he was greedy--- and took what he wanted... Dead or Alive!!! If he gets out it needs to be with the condition he doesn't hang around ANY women (ie love life) because that could trigger his issues.

    1. Your comment is very timely, Hella. Bernie's been released into the custody of his lawyer and is living in Austin, supposedly in a house owned by the guy who directed the film BERNIE. He's been released pending further review of the first / second degree murder charges.

      Mrs. Nugent's family is protesting his release and thinks he should be back in prison while awaiting the review. As of July 10, 2014, he's still out.

      Is justice being served?