Robert Durst, the 75-year-old New York real estate scion accused of killing a close friend in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon 18 years ago, pleaded not guilty Thursday to a murder charge.
Durst, whose past was detailed in an HBO documentary series, is charged with the killing of Susan Berman, 55, who was found dead in her home on Christmas Eve 2000.
Prosecutors theorize that Durst killed Berman because she was about to be questioned by New York police in a renewed investigation into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Kathie” Durst, who has never been found.
The murder charge against Durst includes the special circumstance allegations of lying in wait and killing a witness to a crime, along with an allegation that he personally used a handgun to carry out the murder.
Durst is due back in a Los Angeles courtroom Jan. 14 for a pretrial hearing.
During final arguments at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing that spanned several weeks, defense attorney David Chesnoff said last month the prosecution’s theory that Durst killed Berman while he was lying in wait was illogical, telling the judge the allegation was “very weak.” He also noted there were no fingerprints, DNA, blood, eyewitnesses or hair samples linking his client to the crime.
But Deputy District Attorney John Lewin argued that Durst was “responsible” for his wife’s death in 1982. He called Durst an “egomaniac” who has done what he wants his entire life.
The prosecutor said Durst “got away with” his wife’s killing for years, and even employed Berman to help cover his tracks — in part by having Berman pretend to be his wife in a telephone call to the dean of the New York medical school his wife was attending at the time of her disappearance.
“This is clearly a witness killing,” Lewin said of Berman’s slaying, telling the judge there was evidence Durst killed Berman before she could speak to New York authorities about his wife’s disappearance.
“He killed her because he was afraid she was going to talk,” the prosecutor alleged.
Durst has been behind bars since his arrest March 14, 2015, in a New Orleans hotel room. He was taken into custody hours before the airing of the final episode of HBO’s documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which examined the disappearance of his wife, and the killings of Berman and a Texas neighbor, Morris Black, in 2001.
Durst went on trial for Black’s death and dismemberment after a nationwide manhunt in which he was located in Pennsylvania, but a jury acquitted him of murder after agreeing with Durst’s contention that he had killed his neighbor in self-defense.
In the finale of “The Jinx,” Durst is caught on microphone muttering to himself, “Killed them all, of course,” and “There it is, you’re caught.”
At the end of the preliminary hearing last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham called Durst’s comment in the documentary “cryptic.” The judge also described Berman’s murder as “an execution-style killing.”
Windham said the evidence suggested that Durst killed his wife, supporting the argument that Berman’s death was an effort to eliminate a witness to a crime.
Durst has been long estranged from his real estate-rich family, which is known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers — including an investment in the World Trade Center. He 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.