The prosecution is expected to finish its opening statement Monday in the murder trial of millionaire New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who is charged with the 2000 execution-style killing of a longtime friend and confidante at her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.
The eight-woman, four-man panel — along with 11 alternates — already spent two days listening last week to Deputy District Attorney John Lewin outlining what they will hear during what is expected to be months of testimony during the trial. Jurors are set to hear from Durst’s attorneys once the prosecutor wraps up his remarks.
Durst, 76, is charged with the December 2000 killing of Susan Berman, who was shot once in the back of the head.
Last week, the prosecutor told jurors that Berman “sealed her fate” and that Durst “decided to kill her” after she lied to him about being contacted by investigators regarding the still unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathie, 18 years earlier.
Investigators had planned to contact Berman about Kathie Durst’s disappearance, but had not yet reached out to her, according to the prosecutor. Durst was unaware that Berman had told others that, shortly after the woman disappeared, she, Berman, had posed as Durst’s wife in a call to the dean of the medical school that Durst’s wife attended, Lewin said.
The deputy district attorney said the circumstantial evidence will show that Durst showed up at Berman’s house either late at night on Dec. 22, 2000, or early the following morning.
“He pulled out a 9 millimeter gun and … executed her,” Lewin alleged, adding that the 55-year-old victim was shot once in the back of the head and was “murdered by someone she truly trusted.” Her friends are expected to testify that she would never have opened her door to a stranger.
Berman had told friends that Durst would be visiting her over the holidays and mileage records for Durst’s 1995 Ford Explorer were consistent with the vehicle being driven from Eureka — near where Durst owned a home — to Berman’s home and then back up to Northern California, the deputy district attorney said.
A forensic pathologist is expected to testify that Berman had been dead for more than 24 hours when a worried neighbor contacted police on Christmas Eve 2000, and that the gun had been held within an inch of the victim’s head when the weapon was fired, according to the prosecutor.
As the second day of opening statements drew to a close last week in Durst’s trial, the prosecution played the audio recording of Durst, who was still wearing a microphone while using the bathroom during an April 18, 2012, interview that was eventually used in the HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
The prosecutor noted that Durst said, “There it is, you’re caught,” even before the bathroom door closed.
Durst subsequently said, “Killed them all, of course,” and “What a disaster” before leaving the bathroom, according to unedited audiotape played in the courtroom.
The comments came after filmmakers questioned Durst about the similarities in handwriting between a letter he had sent to Berman before she was killed and a note that was subsequently mailed to Beverly Hills police to advise them about a “cadaver” at Berman’s address, the prosecutor said, noting at one point that Durst — whom he said “loves media attention” — wanted to be interviewed despite his attorneys’ warnings not to go forward.
During that interview, Durst denied writing the note, but agreed that Beverly Hills was misspelled in each and that the writing looked very similar.
Prosecutors contend 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, the defense team filed a motion admitting that their client had written the note.
Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, has insisted, however, that the concession is not an admission that Durst killed Berman. The attorney told reporters that he had never publicly admitted or denied that Durst wrote the note.
Prosecutors also allege that Durst murdered Berman to silence her from talking to authorities about Kathie Durst’s disappearance while the couple — who had a history of domestic violence — were on a visit to a lakeside cottage in New York.
The prosecution also contends that Durst intentionally killed his neighbor, Morris Black, at a boarding home in Texas. Durst was tried for Black’s death and dismemberment after a nationwide manhunt in which he was located in Pennsylvania, but he was acquitted by a jury in Texas of a murder charge stemming from that killing in September 2001.
Durst had decided to go into hiding by disguising himself as a mute woman after authorities launched a new investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, Lewin told jurors. He subsequently met Black, a 71-year-old drifter who was living at the same small boarding house as Durst, according to the prosecutor.
Black eventually became “the only person in Galveston who knew that Bob Durst was Bob Durst,” Lewin told jurors, calling Black “a loose end” for the defendant.
“Morris Black is pressuring Bob Durst to get a house with him,” the prosecutor said, telling the panel that those were the “circumstances right before Morris Black is going to be murdered.”
DeGuerin quickly interrupted, “The jury found him innocent,” with Lewin countering that Durst was found not guilty instead of innocent of Black’s killing.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham then reminded the jurors that Durst was acquitted of murdering Black, but that the facts of the case may be relevant to the trial involving Berman’s killing.
The deputy district attorney told jurors that the prosecution will be arguing that what happened to Black was not done in self-defense or an accident and that Durst subsequently dismembered the man’s body and dumped the body parts — without the head — in Galveston Bay, where they were discovered.
The prosecutor called it a “tried and true strategy” and said Durst had “done the same thing with Kathie and it worked,” referring to witnesses’ testimony that Durst had discarded his first wife’s personal belongings after her disappearance.
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 Durst’s disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
At an earlier court hearing, one of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, said there are 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.
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.
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