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Bernie - Murder or Manslaughter?


Lawyers are constantly on TV and in the movies. Pop culture is inundated with dramatic depictions of lawyers screaming in courtrooms and preserving justice in the nick of time. We’ve all seen shows like Law and Order and movies like A Few Good Men - but how much of what we see is really accurate?

In this post I’m going to analyze just how real popular depictions of lawyers and the law can be through the lens of a movie I watched recently called Bernie.


Bernie stars an even-more-portly-than-usual Jack Black as the film's title character. The plot follows friendship of Bernie - an ambiguously gay funeral director - and a recently widowed oil heiress named Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine.


I know, I know. Every movie says that. Seriously though, what happens in this movie actually happened in a small, Texas town in the mid 1990's. If you don't believe me - check it out for yourself. (Just for the record, I am going to ruin this movie for you. So if you want to watch it - skip this post and go watch it. If not, just go ahead and read.)

On the left is a real picture of Bernie and Marjorie Nugent and on the right is the movie version of these real life characters.



After her husband’s death, the friendless heiress Marjorie is touched by Bernie's seemingly genuine compassion. They slowly begin spending more time together and the two eventually grow inseparable. As more and more time passes though, Ms. Nugent grows increasingly possessive. She shuts Bernie away from his friends and his work. After months of calmly putting up with Marjorie, Bernie loses control. Ms. Nugent spews some particularly nasty vitriol in Bernie's direction, Bernie grabs a nearby rodent-shooting shotgun, and shoots Margie four times in the back.


Every so often, I watch a movie like Bernie and I find myself being hypercritical of the way pop culture depicts the law. This is not realistic I say. This is not how it would actually happen. That would never be okay in a courtroom. Every so often though, a movie does do an accurate job and Bernie was one of these movies.



As far as the legal substance is concerned, Bernie hit the nail on the head. The central legal issue in Bernie was a question of criminal law. Did Bernie’s actions constitute murder or manslaughter? As a criminal defense lawyer, this is a question I hear fairly regularly. People often read headlines about murder and manslaughter - but few can really explain the difference.


In a nutshell, what separates murder from manslaughter is premeditation. Both crimes involve the killing of a human being. The difference is the killer's state of mind, or what lawyers and law students call mens rea.


Murder requires intent and is, by definition, a premeditated act. This type of crime is characterized by planning. For example, never having owned a weapon before, Steve leaves his home intending to purchase a gun. He plans on using that gun to kill his neighbor. He even wrote about these plans in his journal. Such circumstantial evidence would be indicative of planning and the intent to kill.

For Bernie to be convicted of murder, he had to have planned to kill Margie. He had to have given the act some thought. He needed to premeditate the act before he undertook the act. So, in the case of the movie, Bernie’s thought process would need to have been something like: he looked at the gun, looked at Margie, and decided "I am going to kill her." He was, more or less, aware of the wrongfulness of his actions and decide to proceed regardless.

(An interesting wrinkle in this concept is that the law says intent can be formed in the time it takes to pull a trigger. So, planning doesn't necessarily mean time has passed.)

So, were Bernie's actions premeditated? If they were, Bernie would be guilty of murder. If not, Bernie might avail himself to a manslaughter conviction instead.


Manslaughter - voluntary manslaughter in this case - is what we lawyers often call a 'heat of passion' killing. The best and most often cited example of manslaughter is when a husband comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, sees red, grabs his gun, and kills them both. The husband didn't plan on killing his wife and her lover - he just lost control.

In that sense, manslaughter isn’t “intentional” in the same way murder is. The law views such a state of mind as less culpable and therefore less deserving of punishment. That’s why manslaughter is punished less severely than murder.

Generally, murder will land you in jail for at least 15 years. If you get convicted of manslaughter though, the sentence is substantially shorter, even down to a few years. So, getting a manslaughter conviction rather than a murder conviction was a very big deal for Bernie.


Was it manslaughter or murder? I am not going to ruin that much for you, but I will tell you that it is a genuinely close call. This must have been an absolutely fascinating case to be a part of when it took place. You'll have to watch Bernie to find out.