Los Angeles County prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence in the 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, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Durst — whose past was detailed in an HBO documentary series — is awaiting trial in connection with the killing of Susan Berman, 55, who was found dead in her home in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon on Christmas Eve 2000.
In a court filing submitted Friday, prosecutors allege that the defense — which has moved to exclude evidence about Morris Black’s killing in Texas — is seeking to “blindfold jurors in their search for the truth.”
District Attorney Jackie Lacey and the deputy district attorneys trying the case contend that Black’s killing is “directly applicable to the witness-killing special circumstance allegation” facing Durst.
Prosecutors allege the defendant killed Berman to be certain that she couldn’t talk to authorities about his involvement in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Katie” Durst, who has never been found. Similarly, “(Durst) killed Morris because Morris knew defendant’s true identity and defendant was afraid that Morris was going to reveal his whereabouts to … New York authorities,” the prosecution motion alleges.
Durst’s attorneys argue that the prosecutors are engaged in character assassination by linking Durst to as many homicides as possible without sufficient proof. They contend that “unduly gruesome and inflammatory” evidence about Black’s killing should be barred because the now 75-year-old defendant was acquitted by the jury in his murder trial in Galveston.
Defense attorneys say no evidence exists that Black knew anything about the disappearance of Durst’s wife.
“There is not even a scintilla of evidence that Morris knew anything about Kathie’s disappearance,” a defense motion states.
Prosecutors say circumstantial evidence indicates he was aware.
“(Durst’s) involvement in Kathie’s death was the impetus for all of the tragic events that happened afterward,” the newest motion alleges. “The defendant devised and carried out a diabolical plan to cover up the killing of his wife which ultimately cost two other people their lives.”
During a hearing Tuesday at the Airport Branch Courthouse, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham sided with prosecutors and said they would be permitted to present jurors with details of the Black killing. Durst’s trial is tentatively set for Sept. 3, with another motions hearing set for May 14.
Prosecutors said the facts of Black’s killing will be important in helping jurors understand why many witnesses were reluctant to come forward, something the defense has used to try to discredit their testimony.
Durst testified at his Texas trial that the gun went off accidentally and Black was struck in the face. Black’s head was never found.
To make the case that they are not simply trying to tie several suspicious deaths to Durst to prejudice the jury, prosecutors mentioned another possible victim in their motion. Karen Marie Mitchell, 16, disappeared from Eureka, California, in 1997. Prosecutors said a witness who saw the teenager getting into a car that same day identified Durst as the driver, and a co-worker said Durst came dressed as a women into the store where the girl worked at least twice afterward.
But because there is no direct link to Durst’s first wife’s disappearance or Berman’s murder, the prosecution isn’t seeking to mention Mitchell at trial.
“Karen’s case is just one example of several missing-persons’ investigations in which defendant has either been labeled as a person of interest or a named suspect,” according to the motion.
Durst was ordered to stand trial for Berman’s killing following a hearing that wrapped up Oct. 25 after several weeks of testimony.
One of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, said then that there were no fingerprints, DNA, blood, eyewitnesses or hair samples linking his client to the crime.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin argued 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 that Durst killed his friend because he was “afraid she was going to talk.”
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, 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.”
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.