Robert Durst’s lead attorney told jurors Wednesday that the millionaire real estate scion had no motive to kill his longtime friend in her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles and had nothing to gain from her shooting death more than two decades ago.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin told the panel twice, reiterating his opening statement to jurors in March 2020 shortly before the trial was stalled for more than a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The evidence is lacking. The evidence isn’t there,” DeGuerin said.
Superior Court Judge Mark Windham agreed — given the lengthy delay in the trial — to allow attorneys from both sides to address jurors again about the case before testimony resumes.
Durst, 78, is charged with murder for the December 2000 killing of Berman, a writer with whom he had been close friends for years after the two met at UCLA.
The murder charge includes the special circumstance allegation that she was killed because she was a witness to a crime.
In his abbreviated opening statement Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said the evidence would show that Durst shot and killed the 55-year-old woman “out of survival” because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
“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.
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, in 2001, because the man figured out who Durst was and was putting pressure on him.
Durst — who contended that Black was killed during a struggle over a gun before Durst dismembered his neighbor — was acquitted in Texas of that killing.
Durst’s attorney countered that the disappearance of Kathie Durst and Berman’s killing were “completely dissimilar” to Black’s shooting death.
“Whoever killed Susan Berman left no clues. Kathie Durst disappeared without a trace. After Morris Black’s death, the police found hundreds of clues,” the defense attorney told the jury.
He said Durst went to Berman’s home in December 2000, found his close friend dead and “freaked out,” then sent a note to Beverly Hills police about her body.
DeGuerin told the jury that his client — whom he said suffered from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism — has “been considered a little bit weird” and run away all of his life.
“Bob doesn’t make what we would consider good decisions,” the attorney said, reminding jurors that they will hear from the defendant during the trial.
“Bob Durst had no motive and nothing to gain by the death of Susan Berman,” he said, noting later that there was no forensic evidence linking his client to that killing.
He disputed the prosecution’s contention that Berman made a phone call posing as Kathie Durst and called Berman a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.” The defense attorney also said Durst told Berman to go ahead and talk with authorities.
DeGuerin told the panel that a six-part HBO 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.”
The defense attorney said Durst “wanted his story out,” but chose the wrong people to tell that story and realized by the time the fifth episode aired that it was a “hatchet job.”
Los Angeles police Officer Rashad Sharif, who had started his testimony in March 2020 shortly before the pandemic forced the delay in the trial, returned to the stand and testified that he and other officers were responding to a call of an open door at Berman’s home when they found her body on the floor.
“Were you expecting to find a dead body inside?” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian asked.
“No,” the officer responded. “I didn’t think it was going to be a homicide scene.”
Another witness who took the stand as the trial testimony resumed was Dr. Mark Fajardo, a former Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner who told the panel that he reviewed medical records and photos of Berman since the doctor who performed the autopsy has retired. Fajardo, who is due back on the stand Thursday morning, testified that Berman had been shot once in the back of the head.
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.
On Monday, the judge had 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, and ultimately reached a settlement under which the family reportedly paid him $60 million to $65 million.