Robert Durst shot and killed one of his closest friends inside her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles “out of survival” because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in his first wife’s disappearance and death, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday as the millionaire real estate scion’s murder trial resumed for the first time in more than a year after being stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an abbreviated opening statement allowed by the judge because of the delay in the trial, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the panel that the evidence would show that the now-78-year-old defendant “did not want to kill Susan Berman.”
“He didn’t kill her out of hatred. He didn’t kill out of revenge. He didn’t kill her because he disliked her. He killed her out of survival,” the prosecutor said of the 55-year-old woman’s December 2000 killing. “He believed — and this comes from his mouth — he believed that in the end it was her or me. I had no choice.”
Lewin told jurors that Durst was admittedly “very tight” with his money, but had been giving Berman “an incredible amount of money,” which the prosecutor said the evidence will show was “stay-quiet money” for her silence about the 1982 disappearance and killing of Kathie Durst.
In the end, the killing was about 20 years too late because Berman had “already told her story to numerous people,” the prosecutor said.
“Nothing, in fact, was taken that day other than Susan’s life,” Lewin said, telling jurors that her purse containing credit cards, her identification and cash were left behind and that robbers or burglars take items and “don’t just walk in and execute somebody and leave.”
The prosecutor told the jury that the victim was “extremely security conscious” and that her killer had to have been let into the house, noting that she “turned her back to her killer.”
“Susan Berman never saw what happened. She never knew it was going to happen. She turned around because she trusted him because he was her close friend. He was not someone to fear … She took a few steps and he basically blew her brains out,” Lewin said.
A so-called “cadaver note” was subsequently sent to Beverly Hills police to alert them to a body inside the home, with Durst subsequently saying in interviews that he did not pen the note and that whoever wrote the note had to have been involved in Berman’s death, the prosecutor noted.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before Durst’s trial began last year that the defendant admitted in a stipulation that he had written the note, the deputy district attorney said.
Calling the cases “interrelated,” the prosecutor said jurors will also hear evidence that Durst killed his wife and used Berman to help cover up his part in the crime and that he subsequently had to kill another person, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, because the man figured who Durst was and was putting pressure on him. Durst was acquitted in Texas of Black’s killing.
The murder charge involving Berman’s killing includes the special circumstance allegation that she was killed because she was a witness to a crime.
The prosecutor noted that jurors have an image now of Durst as a “frail old man. But that’s not who Robert Durst was in 1982. It’s not who he was in 2000.”
Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, is expected to address jurors Wednesday with his own abbreviated opening statement. He told the panel in his opening statement last year that his client arrived to spend the holidays with Berman and found her dead.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did. He did find her body shortly after someone had shot her in the head,” Durst’s lawyer said then.
“Bob showed up and found her dead. He panicked,” DeGuerin said, telling jurors that his client wrote the anonymous “cadaver note” that was subsequently mailed to police so her body would be found.
DeGuerin told the panel that a six-part HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” in which the defendant was recorded saying “There it is, you’re caught” and “killed them all, of course,” was “heavily edited” and “not a documentary.”
Durst appeared in court in a wheelchair and was wearing a face mask, as were all of the other trial’s participants as jurors sat spread throughout the Inglewood courtroom, where the trial had been moved because of social distancing protocols.
Just before the trial resumed, one of the alternate jurors who had been hearing the case was booted by Superior Court Judge Mark Windham after looking at an article about the defense’s bid for a mistrial and texting another juror about it.
On Monday, the judge rejected an emergency motion from the defense seeking to postpone the trial indefinitely based on what lawyers said were Durst’s “life-threatening” health issues.
In making the case for a continuance, DeGuerin reeled off a list of Durst’s serious health concerns, including severe malnourishment, a recurrence of esophageal cancer, atrial fibrillation, chronic kidney disease, coronary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and spinal disease. He said his client has gotten “much worse” in the last year.
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 Kathie’s disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
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.