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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Richard Linklater's Bernie, Sudden Passion, Dissociative Episodes & Future Dangerousness

Richard Linklater is one of my very favorite film directors of all time. Probably my favorite line about Linklater's movies comes from an Entertainment Weekly review of Terminator 3:

Sure, there could be a movie in which John Connor and his pals sit around and talk about how there almost were Killer Robots, and debate where John's father came from, and then maybe take some bong hits and play Sega or something. But that would be, like, a Richard Linklater movie.

Many of Linklater's movies are, indeed, extended conversations, beginning with his breakthrough film, 1991's "Slacker," in which we follow character after character (and I mean character) through the streets of Austin, Texas. A decade later, Linklater would make the ambitious "Waking Life," essentially a rotoscoped, fantastical version of "Slacker." Linklater's "SubUrbia" and "Tape" are both filmed plays light on action and heavy on dialogue, the latter taking place in real time in a hotel room. And then there's "Before Sunrise," in which Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine fall in love while talking through the streets of Vienna. Nine years later, they pick up the conversation again in the bittersweet "Before Sunset." Looking ahead, Linklater's forthcoming Boyhood project, shot over the course of 12 years, promises to be a truly extended conversation about adolescence and the shifting mother-child relationship.

Of course, Linklater is no stranger to more plot-driven, studio fare. He hit a home run with the Jack Black musical comedy, "The School of Rock," but ironically, given his love of baseball, struck out with his remake of "The Bad News Bears." (The only Linklater movie I didn't enjoy). 

Some of Linklater's best work has come when he's made films based upon real life events in his home state of Texas. "Dazed and Confused," commonly referred to as the Gen X "American Graffiti,"  sprang from, as Linklater has said, hearing a song from ZZ Top's "Fandango!" which instantly propelled him back to 1976, cruising around his hometown. And then there's "The Newton Boys," a jovial telling of the story of the titular brothers, who hailed from Uvalde County Texas and were the most successful bank robbers in U.S. history. Later, Linklater returned to his love of baseball in "Inning by Inning: Portrait of a Coach," a philosophical documentary about Auggie Garrido, the baseball coach at the University of Texas and the winningest coach in NCAA history. That takes us to Linklater's most recent offering on the silver screen, "Bernie."

 

According to Wikipedia,

Bernie is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," that chronicles the 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas by her 39-year-old homosexual companion, Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede. Nugent was shot in the back four times with a rifle by Tiede, who confessed to the 1996 murder. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, police searched Tiede's home and found videotapes showing Tiede "engaging in homosexual acts" with local married men. Tiede admitted the murder to police in August 1997 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Like most Linklater films, "Bernie" has received effusive praise from critics. It currently has an 84% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 91% approval from the cream of the crop critics. According to LA Weekly,

Richard Linklater's Bernie is the rarest of rarities: a truly unexpected film. It might be classified as a black comedy, for it deals with the murder of an 81-year-old woman in a fashion that is not exactly tragic. But unlike most movies that fall under that label, it never indulges in flagrant, naughty posturing, nor does it offer the viewer a firm, comfortable point of view from which to sit back and bear witness.

And Jeffrey Wells was quite smitten with it as well, writing that

Bernie says something about human nature that everyone will recognize as rock solid when and if they see it. Which is basically thatfeelings and likability rule, that Americans trust beliefs more than facts, and that we're governed less by laws than emotions. You can say "yeah, I know that without seeing a film" but the observation sinks in extra-deep after hanging with Richard and Bernie.

"Bernie" is currently out in limited release, and it hasn't made it to the Chicago area, so I haven't seen it yet. But I have read Tiede v. State, 2002 WL 31618281 (Tex.App.-Tyler 2002), the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Texas, Tyler, rejecting Tiede's appeal of his life sentence.

Specifically, the procedural history in Tiede was as follows:

-Tiede was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment;

-Tieda appealed his conviction and sentence, with the Court of Appeals of Texas, Tyler, affirming his conviction but reversing and remanding for a new hearing on punishment based upon the trial court's exclusion of Tiede's expert's proffered testimony;

-The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas vacated that judgment and remanded the cause for reconsideration of the character and harmfulness of the trial court's exclusion of Tiede's expert's proffered testimony; and

-The Court of Appeals of Texas, Tyler, then found harmless error and affirmed Tiede's sentence.

The expert testimony at issue was as follows:

At the punishment stage of his trial, [Tiede] offered the expert testimony of Dr. Frederick Gary Mears, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. Though Dr. Mears was allowed to testify generally about clinical disorders involving "dissociation," he did not testify regarding his examinations of or opinions about [Tiede]'s mental state. After Dr. Mears completed his testimony the defense made an offer of proof showing that Dr. Mears was also prepared to testify that: 1) regarding the issues of "sudden passion" and "adequate cause," the stress of his relationship with Mrs. Nugent and the demands she placed on him degraded or diminished [Tiede]'s capacity for cool reflection; 2) regarding [Tiede]'s future dangerousness, [Tiede] posed no danger to anyone in the prison system; and 3) regarding [Tiede]'s behavior after the offense, [Tiede] had experienced certain dissociative episodes in which he mentally separated from the act of killing Mrs. Nugent

In finding that the exclusion of this proferred expert testimony was harmless, the Court of Appeals reached the following conclusions:

Sudden Passion

"The record shows that after forming a close relationship with Mrs. Nugent, a wealthy widow, Appellant grew resentful because of her possessiveness. Finally, after considering murder for two months, Appellant shot Mrs. Nugent in the back until she was dead. Appellant explained his feelings and reasoning to the jury, attempting to present evidence of sudden passion. In closing arguments, the State reminded the jury that the murder was premeditated and stated there was no evidence of sudden passion or adequate cause. Defense counsel, in his closing argument, referred to defense testimony in support of a finding of sudden passion. Further, the jury charge included an instruction on sudden passion. However, a significant amount of evidence before the jury indicated not just the absence of sudden passion but the presence of premeditation and, more importantly, as explained above, Dr. Mears' excluded testimony would not have supported a finding of sudden passion. Therefore, the error of excluding Dr. Mears' testimony on the issue of sudden passion either did not influence the jury's verdict or only had a slight effect."

Dissociative Episodes

"Appellant attempted to mitigate the image presented by the State by explaining that his outward demeanor was a symptom of a dissociative reaction to severe emotional stress. Before the jury, Dr. Mears stated that dissociation often grows out of excessive stress and that people who are dissociative engage in a high level of repression and can have two different kinds of behavior. He noted that funeral directors are among those who learn to use a repressive technique. Further, Dr. Edward Gripon, the State's expert witness, thoroughly explained, on cross-examination by defense counsel, what dissociative disorder is. The jury also heard Appellant testify that he had not thought about the murder and had put it out of his mind.

The excluded evidence was very similar. Dr. Mears stated on voir dire that Appellant did not suffer from dissociative identity disorder  but might have had an episodic dissociative event. In the bill of exception, Dr. Mears indicated that Appellant's flat and deadpan manner after arrest was indicative of dissociative disorder. He also explained that individuals under a high degree of stress engage in dissociative episodes. In light of the evidence before the jury, we conclude that exclusion of Dr. Mears' testimony on the issue of dissociation did not influence the jury's verdict or had only a slight effect."

Future Dangerousness

"The jury had before it evidence of Appellant's character, his relationship with Mrs. Nugent, and the circumstances leading up to the murder. In closing, the State insinuated that, if not in prison, Appellant would pose a threat to other vulnerable widows. To the extent the State emphasized future dangerousness, it specified the group that might be in danger. The excluded testimony did not implicate vulnerable widows as Dr. Mears, in his excluded testimony, referred only to those individuals within the prison system. Accordingly, exclusion of Dr. Mears' testimony on the issue of future dangerousness did not influence the jury's verdict or had only a slight effect."

-CM

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