Millionaire New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who stands accused of murdering a longtime friend at her Benedict Canyon home in December 2000, found the woman’s body after she had been killed, his lead attorney told jurors Tuesday.
“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,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said, noting that jurors would hear Durst testify in his own defense during the trial.
He said Durst was coming to visit Berman for the holidays.
“Bob showed up and found her dead. He panicked,” Durst’s attorney said, telling jurors that his client wrote an anonymous “cadaver note” that was subsequently mailed to Beverly Hills police so her body would be found.
The prosecution, which completed its three-day opening statement Monday, alleges Durst killed Berman in December 2000, and neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in September 2001, in an effort to cover up information about his first wife’s disappearance and to hide out in Texas while posing as a mute woman after authorities launched a new investigation into what had happened to Kathie Durst.
Durst — who was tried before a jury in Texas for Black’s killing — was acquitted there of murder after the defendant testified that he killed Black in self-defense.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told the eight-woman, four-man panel — along with 11 alternates — that the evidence would show that Durst killed his first wife in 1982 and that Berman’s decision to help him would ultimately “cost Susan her life” when she told him she was going to talk to investigators looking into the woman’s still-unsolved disappearance in New York 18 years later.
Jurors are set to begin hearing testimony Wednesday.
Durst, 76, was profiled in a six-part HBO television series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” in which the defendant was later recorded saying “There it is, you’re caught” and “killed them all, of course.”
DeGuerin told the panel that the series was “heavily edited” and “not a documentary.”
Another of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, told jurors that there was “no forensic evidence” linking Durst to his longtime friend’s killing in Los Angeles, telling jurors repeatedly that “no evidence is evidence.” He contended that the prosecution’s theory that Durst killed Berman to silence her was “spun from whole cloth” and was “premised on a false assumption” that was one of the theories presented in the fictional movie, “All Good Things,” about Durst.
Chesnoff described Durst and Berman as “the dearest of friends” and said he had loved and supported her emotionally and financially, giving her checks totaling $50,000 in the months leading up to her death. Their friendship — which began when the two met while students at UCLA — lasted until her “unfortunate murder,” he said.
“Susan Berman was expecting Bob … If this was some plot by Mr. Durst to commit a premeditated murder, you don’t plan a party. You don’t tell people when you’re coming,” the defense attorney said, noting that one of Berman’s friends is expected to testify that Durst was going to take a group of people to dinner.
Durst had a key to Berman’s home, came in the door, found her body and thought the killer might still be there, Chesnoff said, noting that Durst had already been “blamed for the disappearance of his wife.” He said Durst opted to send the so-called “cadaver note” in hopes that they would draw police to the residence.
Chesnoff said Durst found Berman dead on Dec. 23, 2000, saying that she had most likely been killed that morning. He said a phone had been disconnected from the wall and was off the hook, indicating “evidence of a struggle.”
Chesnoff alleged that the investigation into Berman’s killing was “sloppy” and “incomplete,” and that no efforts were made at the time to “find the real killer.” Chesnoff said Durst will testify that he believes he is a “pursued person.”
DeGuerin said he and Chip Lewis, who is also on the Durst defense team, had represented Durst in the case in Galveston about 20 years ago, in which Durst was acquitted of Black’s murder.
“You haven’t heard the whole story yet,” DeGuerin told jurors at the outset of his opening statement.
DeGuerinsaid he understood that the dismemberment of Black’s body is one of the things that will bother jurors the most, calling it “the elephant in the room.” But he said Durst decided that the police would never believe him.
DeGuerin drew on a large chart three buckets — one with the initials of Black and two underneath representing the disappearance of Kathie Durst and Berman.
“The Morris Black bucket is full. It’s full of bad stuff, bad evidence, and our concern is that the evidence about Morris Black will spill over into those other buckets,” he said, noting Durst was acquitted of Black’s killing and telling jurors the evidence will show that Black’s finger was on the trigger of the gun that killed him, not Durst’s.
The defense attorney said Durst “panicked and ran as he’d been doing all his life” after being notified in the fall of 2000 that an ambitious district attorney in New York had decided to reinvestigate Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
“What he feared was the same kind of lurid headlines and bad publicity that had happened 18 years earlier when Kathie Durst disappeared,” DeGuerin said.
He said his client “doesn’t make good decisions and is on the mild side of autism” and smoked marijuana on a daily basis, adding that Durst is frail due to “quite a bit of medical problems” and is a cancer survivor.
He noted that Durst was “raised in wealth” but was living in a $300 a month apartment that one could barely turn around in when he went into hiding in Galveston.
Like the defense did with the prosecution’s opening statement, Lewin repeatedly objected during the defense’s presentation.
In his opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury that Durst “waited for Susan to turn her back on her best friend, someone she loved and trusted” and that he “executed her at point-blank range” inside her home.
“The evidence is going to show that he murdered his friend, Morris Black, dismembered his corpse, dumped the body parts like they were trash into Galveston Bay (in Texas) and that he did that, because again Morris Black was a connection to Kathie,” Lewin said of Durst’s boarding-house neighbor, who had grown to realize who Durst was while the defendant posed as a mute woman while hiding out in Galveston.
Durst was tried for Black’s death and dismemberment after a nationwide manhunt in which he was located in Pennsylvania, but he was acquitted in Texas of a murder charge stemming from that killing in September 2001.
“It’s been long and it’s complicated because Mr. Durst has committed a lot of crimes,” Lewin told jurors, noting that he would ask them at the end of the trial to “finally” hold Durst accountable for the crimes.
As he neared the end of his opening statement, the prosecutor said Durst — who had repeatedly denied writing the “cadaver note” — stipulated about two months ago that he had written the document.
“Durst has also made clear, absolutely and without reservation, whoever wrote the cadaver note is in fact the person who murdered Susan Berman,” Lewin told jurors.
The prosecutor played a segment of an interview in which Durst told a documentary filmmaker that the note was one that “only the killer could have written,” along with a segment of an interview with prosecutors and police in which Durst said, “Whoever wrote that note had to be involved in Susan’s death.”
Jurors also heard earlier videotaped court testimony from Nick Chavin, a longtime friend of both Durst and Berman, who testified that Durst had told him about Berman, “I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice.”
Lewin told jurors that Durst “killed her about 20 years too late” because he didn’t realize that she had told friends that she had posed as Durst’s missing wife during a call to a dean at the New York medical school Kathie was attending. Berman had lied to Durst about being contacted by investigators, though they had planned on reaching out to her, the deputy district attorney said.
Lewin said the evidence would show that the killings were “not signs of a deranged individual,” but someone who was trying to protect himself after being backed into a corner.
“When Bob Durst killed Kathie, he killed Susan and Morris, as well,” the deputy district attorney said. “Because once that happened, there was no turning back.”
The prosecutor also contended that Durst had unsuccessfully plotted to kill his brother, Douglas, who had assumed control of the Durst Organization after their father’s death.
In a motion asking that the alleged plot be allowed to be discussed before the jury, prosecutors alleged that Durst wore a ski mask with eye openings pulled back over his forehead and then accelerated and drove away at a high rate of speed when a security guard pulled a firearm on him after he drove into the driveway of his brother’s New York home.
“It’s been long and it’s complicated because Mr. Durst has committed a lot of crimes,” the prosecutor said as he neared the end of his opening statement.
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.
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