A judge agreed Friday to allow expedited questioning of two witnesses in the murder case against New York real estate scion Robert Durst, including one whose identity hasn’t yet been revealed to the defense, with prosecutors expressing fear that witnesses “might be killed” before they can testify at a preliminary hearing.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham ruled that attorneys from both sides will be allowed Feb. 14 to question Dr. Albert Kuperman, who is in his mid-80s and is believed to have spoken to someone identifying herself as Durst’s first wife around the time she disappeared in 1982.
Attorneys that day will also be able to question a “secret” witness whose identity has not yet been disclosed to the defense. The judge ordered prosecutors to provide Durst’s legal team with the witness’ identity by Jan. 31 so they could prepare for the questioning.
Durst is charged in the December 2000 killing of his friend, Susan Berman, in her Benedict Canyon home. Prosecutors say he killed her because authorities in New York’s Westchester County were about to interview her as part of a reopened investigation into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Kathie” Durst.
“That man kills witnesses … When pushed into a corner, he murders people,” Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said of the 73-year-old defendant.
Durst’s attorneys objected to the early questioning of witnesses, countering that their client does not pose any threat to anyone who might testify in his murder case.
“Mr. Durst is in custody. Mr. Durst is in a wheelchair,” defense attorney David Chesnoff told the judge, noting that he believes his client’s jailhouse telephone calls are tape-recorded by authorities.
Chesnoff said the state has essentially had more than a decade to investigate the case, while the defense is dealing with 150,000 pages of documents that have already been turned over so far by the prosecution.
“They have withheld we don’t know how may pages (of information) … about these conditional witnesses,” Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, told the judge, noting that the defense had no way to contest the grounds for having the witnesses testify early without knowing who they are and what they are expected to say during their testimony.
Referring to the “secret” witness, the judge said the prosecution had indicated there was a “possible danger to the safety of two witnesses,” including the unidentified witness who is expected to be called to testify next month. The prosecution said it was “not unreasonable” for the prosecution to question Kuperman early given his age.
Lewin said prosecutors may ask later to allow early questioning of other witnesses, including a second “secret” witness, if the case doesn’t proceed quickly to a hearing in which a judge would determine if there is enough evidence to require Durst to stand trial for Berman’s killing.
The judge noted that the testimony — which will be videotaped for future use if the witnesses are not available by the time of trial — would give the defense an “additional opportunity to test the veracity of these witnesses.”
Outside court, Durst’s lead attorney told reporters, “Bob is very looking forward to being able to prove his innocence. He didn’t kill Susan Berman, doesn’t know who did. The sooner we can get to trial after getting all the discovery (evidence to be presented), the better.”
Prosecutors contend that Durst has a history of violence against witnesses, alleging he killed a neighbor, Morris Black, in 2001 in Galveston, Texas, where he was “living under an assumed name and pretended to be a mute woman.”
In a court document filed last week in which the prosecution referred to Durst as a “menace to society,” prosecutors argued that Black was killed because he found out Durst was not really a mute woman, and Durst responded “by shooting him in the back of the head” and dismembering his body. Durst was tried for that killing but acquitted.
Prosecutors wrote that the early questioning — called a conditional examination — exists to “preserve critical evidence” and allow “each side to present evidence at trial that is necessary to fully inform the jury’s decision.”
“This is especially true where, as here, there is a unique danger that witnesses might be killed and evidence forever lost,” the prosecutors wrote in their filing. “Unable to dispute this simple truth, the defense has instead argued that defendant Robert Durst … poses no danger to witnesses because he is `frail,’ `in a wheelchair,’ and unable `to harm anyone.’ This argument flies in the face of reality, as
Defense attorneys contend it is inconceivable that the defense could be properly prepared to cross-examine these witnesses” in light of the “extraordinary amount” of material they’ve been given by the prosecution about the case.
“Here, the people are concealing the identities of numerous `secret’ witnesses,” the defense wrote, adding that there is “no basis to shield this information as Mr. Durst is not a threat to any witness.”
Durst has denied any involvement in Berman’s killing. The murder charge includes the special circumstance allegations of murder of a witness and murder while lying in wait, along with gun use allegations. But a prosecutor said in court the District Attorney’s Office does not plan to seek the death penalty.
Durst was arrested March 14, 2015, in a New Orleans hotel room, hours before the airing of the final episode of the HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which examined the disappearance of his wife in 1982 and the killings of Berman and Black.
On the documentary series finale, which aired the day after his arrest, Durst was caught on microphone saying to himself, “Killed them all, of course.” He also was caught on microphone saying, “There it is, you’re caught,” and “What a disaster.”
During a jailhouse interview with Lewin, Durst said he was “on meth” while the documentary was being filmed and that he didn’t heed his attorneys’ advice not to be interviewed for the series.
Durst was indicted in April 2015 in U.S. District Court in Louisiana on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty to that charge and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison before being brought to Los Angeles in connection with the murder case.
He has been long estranged from his real-estate-rich family, known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers — including an investment in the World Trade Center. Durst split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle.
According to various media reports, Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family paid him $60 million to $65 million.
— City News Service