The lead attorney for millionaire New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who stands accused of killing a longtime friend at her Benedict Canyon home in December 2000, told jurors Tuesday that the defendant found her body after she had been killed.
“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.
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.
Durst will testify in his own defense during the trial, DeGuerin told jurors.
The prosecution, which completed its three-day opening statement Monday, alleges Durst killed Berman, and neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001, in an effort to cover up information about his first wife’s disappearance.
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, Kathie, 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.
Durst’s attorney said that 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.
He said he understands that the dismemberment of Black’s body is one of the things that will bother jurors the most.
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 found not guilty 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, while living in Galveston, 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 76-year-old 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.
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.”
Like the defense did with the prosecution’s opening statement, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin repeatedly objected during DeGuerin’s presentation.
In his opening statement, Lewin 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 by a jury 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.