Jury deliberations resumed Friday in the murder trial of New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who is charged with killing a longtime friend in her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles nearly 21 years ago.
Jurors have spent less than six hours discussing the case since it was handed to them Tuesday afternoon following 3 1/2 days of closing arguments by attorneys. The panel did not deliberate on Thursday.
Durst, 78, is charged with murder for Susan Berman’s execution-style December 2000 slaying. The charge includes the special-circumstance allegations of murder while lying in wait and murder of a witness.
Durst spent 14 days on the stand and repeatedly denied being involved in Berman’s killing, and testified that he wrote a so-called “cadaver” letter to police after finding Berman’s body while using a key she had sent him to enter her house.
The prosecution contends that Durst shot Berman and then his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, nine months later — in the head because each of them had damaging information against him and feared they would speak to authorities after a re-investigation was launched into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Kathie” Durst, whose body has never been found.
Durst has denied any involvement in his first wife’s disappearance, and he was acquitted in Texas of Black’s murder after testifying that the gun went off during a struggle over the weapon.
One of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, urged jurors in his closing argument Monday to acquit the defendant, whom he had described earlier as “sick and elderly.”
“They have not proven that Bob Durst killed Susan Berman beyond a reasonable doubt,” the defense lawyer said. “Bob did not kill Kathie Durst, therefore there was no great secret … No evidence is evidence that they haven’t proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Chesnoff told jurors Berman did not make a phone call posing as Kathie Durst to the medical school where the missing woman was a student — as the prosecution contends she did to provide an alibi for Durst — and that she “wasn’t a witness to anything.”
The defense attorney contended that the initial investigation by Los Angeles police into Berman’s killing was “shoddy and incomplete,” and that police didn’t even find a fingerprint from Durst even though he acknowledged being near the body of the 55-year-old woman he had met at UCLA years earlier.
“Who else did they miss?” Chesnoff asked. “They missed the real killer … This was a botched investigation. Now let’s blame it all on Bob. That’s what we always do and people wonder why Bob Durst was running — because it never stops. You will put a stop to it.”
In his rebuttal argument, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the jury that there was a “mountain of evidence” against Durst, whom he said “killed three people,” and that it is time for Durst to be “held accountable.”
The prosecutor noted that Durst’s wife had mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again, that Berman was killed after telling Durst she was going to talk to police looking into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, that Black was killed and dismembered and that a mutual friend of Durst and Berman testified that Durst had told him about Berman, “It was her or me. I had no choice.”
“That’s a lot of bad luck, but you know what you can really ask instead? `Is it 40 years of undeserved good luck?”’ Lewin asked. “He has never been held accountable for his domestic abuse of Kathie. He was never held accountable for her death. The last 20 years he’s gotten away with murdering Susan. For the last 20 years, he’s avoided responsibility for Morris Black. Durst is not jinxed. He’s a three-time killer who has managed to escape accountability until this very moment.”
Another prosecutor, Habib Balian, told jurors that the killing was “planned” and “premeditated,” and that “Susan knew her killer and let him into the house” before being shot in the back of the head when she turned her back. Balian noted that Durst acknowledged that Berman had told him she was going to speak with police after the investigation was reopened into Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
The jury in Durst’s trial was impaneled in February 2020 and began hearing the case the following month, just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the trial to be delayed for more than a year. Jurors returned to court in mid-May when attorneys gave a new and abbreviated round of opening statements before testimony resumed.
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 six-part HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which examined the disappearance of Kathie Durst and the shooting deaths of Berman and Black.
During his time on the stand, Durst told jurors that a bathroom recording of him shown in the series in which he said, “There it is, you’re caught,” referred to the cadaver note he ultimately admitted writing.
Durst had been confronted by Andrew Jarecki — director and co-producer of “The Jinx” — about the cadaver note and two envelopes addressed to Berman and acknowledged that it was pretty obvious that the handwriting was the same, even though he had denied for years that he had written the note to police about Berman’s body.
Durst has subsequently admitted that he wrote the letter.
When asked what he meant by his recorded comment “killed them all, of course” that was shown during the series, Durst said, “What I did not say out loud or perhaps I said very softly, `They’ll all think I killed them all, of course.”’
He 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.
Durst 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 in which the family reportedly paid him $60 million to $65 million.