A judge ruled Tuesday that Los Angeles County prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence in the upcoming murder trial of New York real estate scion Robert Durst about the 2001 killing and dismemberment of a Texas neighbor for which he was acquitted.
Durst — whose past was detailed in an HBO documentary series — is set to go on trial Sept. 3 at the Airport Branch Courthouse in Los Angeles in connection with the killing of Susan Berman, 55, who was found dead in her home in Benedict Canyon on Christmas Eve 2000.
During a hearing Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham agreed with the prosecution’s contention that jurors should hear evidence about Morris Black’s killing in Galveston, Texas.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the judge that the 75-year-old defendant “beat a murder in Galveston.”
“… He got away with it. … He’s not going to get away a second time,” the prosecutor said, referring to Berman’s shooting death.
Lewin contends there is circumstantial evidence linking Durst to the killings of Berman and Black, along with the 1982 disappearance of the defendant’s first wife, Kathleen “Katie” Durst, who has never been found. The deputy district attorney contended that Black’s severed head is “somewhere in a gator’s belly between Houston and New Orleans.”
Prosecutors have contended that Durst killed Berman so she couldn’t talk to authorities about his alleged involvement in his wife’s 1982 disappearance, and that Durst killed Black because he knew the defendant’s true identity and was afraid Black would reveal his whereabouts to authorities from New York.
Durst’s attorneys countered that it would be prejudicial for jurors in the Los Angeles trial to hear about the killing in Texas, which Durst contended was done in self-defense. They argued in court papers that no evidence exists that Black knew anything about the disappearance of Durst’s wife and that prosecutors are engaged in character assassination by trying to link Durst to as many homicides as possible without sufficient proof.
“The second the Morris Black acquittal comes before this jury … it’s game over,” one of Durst’s attorneys, Chip Lewis, told the judge, with Windham later disagreeing with that assessment.
Lewis contended it would be “fundamentally unfair” to require Durst to locate witnesses the defense had called in his trial for Black’s killing, and said prosecutors were trying to force Durst into testifying in his latest trial.
Another of Durst’s lawyers, Donald Re, told the judge “there is extraordinary prejudice in the facts the people are trying to introduce.”
Shortly before agreeing to allow evidence about Black’s killing to be presented in Durst’s trial in Los Angeles, the judge noted that Durst is not in legal jeopardy for that death and “may not be punished for that crime.”
The judge said evidence about Black’s killing could be relevant to the special circumstance of lying in wait involving Berman’s killing, and noted that Durst’s payment of Black’s bills after killing the man was “very similar” to his actions after his wife disappeared.
But the judge noted that the photographs of Black’s body — minus the man’s head, which has never been found — are “grim” and said he may limit the photographs jurors will see, along with potentially giving jurors an instruction advising them that Durst has already been acquitted of murdering Black.
Durst — who remains jailed — is due back in court May 14 for a hearing on other pretrial motions.
He was ordered to stand trial for Berman’s killing following a hearing that wrapped up Oct. 25 after several weeks of testimony.
The prosecutor argued last year that Durst was “responsible” for his wife’s death in 1982 and got Berman to help him 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. The prosecutor contends Durst killed his friend because he was “afraid she was going to talk.”
One of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, said there were no fingerprints, DNA, blood, eyewitnesses or hair samples linking his client to the crime.
Durst has been behind bars since March 14, 2015. He was taken into custody in a New Orleans hotel room 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 Black.
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 HBO’s “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 fall, Windham called Durst’s comment in the documentary “cryptic.” The judge also described Berman’s murder as “an execution-style killing.”
The judge said then that 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.
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