Attorneys began questioning prospective jurors Wednesday in the trial of millionaire New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who is charged with murdering a friend inside her Benedict Canyon home in December 2000.
With the trial expected to stretch for an estimated five months, attorneys and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham will look to choose 12 jurors and 12 alternates, with the jury selection process estimated to take at least two weeks.
Prospective jurors have already been pre-screened to ensure they are able to serve on such a lengthy trial.
On Wednesday, Durst, 76, was again brought into court in a wheelchair. His attorneys have said Durst suffers from various health problems, and he has often looked frail during previous hearings. With prospective jurors sitting in the courtroom, defense attorneys David Chesnoff and Dick DeGuerin helped Durst to his feet so DeGuerin could introduce him to the group.
Durst — whose past was detailed in an HBO documentary series called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” — is accused of killing Susan Berman, 55, inside her Benedict Canyon home, allegedly because she was prepared to speak to New York investigators about the never-solved disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathie, in 1982.
Durst has been behind bars since March 14, 2015, when he was taken into custody in a New Orleans hotel room hours before the airing of the final episode of the HBO series, which examined the 1982 disappearance of Kathie Durst and the killings of Berman and Durst’s Texas neighbor, Morris Black.
Durst was tried 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.”
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin has 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 her 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 Berman because he was “afraid she was going to talk.”
Chesnoff has countered that there were no fingerprints, DNA, blood, hair samples or eyewitnesses linking his client to the crime. Durst’s defense team has long insisted that their client did not kill Berman and does not know who did.
A key piece of evidence in the case is expected to be the so-called “cadaver note” — an anonymous missive that was sent to Beverly Hills police in December 2000, alerting them to a body inside Berman’s home. The note simply contained the word “cadaver” and Berman’s address.
Prosecutors have contended that Durst wrote the note and had originally planned to introduce handwriting evidence in an effort to prove who penned it. Defense attorneys responded with motions in an effort to exclude such evidence from the trial. But in December, Durst’s defense team filed a motion admitting that their client had written the note.
DeGuerin insisted, however, that the concession is not an admission that Durst killed Berman. The attorney told reporters that had never publicly admitted or denied that Durst wrote the note.
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.