Defense attorneys are asking the judge to allow jurors in Robert Durst’s trial — which is set to resume next month — to be questioned on nearly two-dozen topics given the pandemic-forced delay of more than a year since the panel began hearing the murder case against the real estate scion.
Durst’s defense team is asking Superior Court Judge Mark Windham to allow them to ask a series of questions “in light of the extraordinary delay and circumstances which have transpired since the start of the trial in this case, and particularly in light of the high likelihood that the pandemic that has affected lives all over the world, has likewise impacted the lives of the jurors and/or their families.”
The trial — which was put on hold in March 2020 — is set to resume May 17 after moving from the Airport courthouse to a larger courtroom at the Inglewood courthouse to enable social distancing protocols.
The list of proposed questions include how the pandemic has affected jurors’ lives; whether jurors believe continued jury service would create an extreme hardship; whether they or anyone in their family, household or close contacts has had COVID-19; whether they have received a COVID-19 vaccination; and if they have concerns that coming to court daily poses any risk to their health and safety.
Durst’s attorneys noted in the court filing that they also want to ask jurors whether they “hold any resentments toward Mr. Durst or his defense team or the prosecution for continuing with the trial at this time,” if they have seen or heard about the case during the lengthy delay, and if they have formed an opinion on whether Durst is guilty of murder. The defense team is asking that the judge otherwise question jurors if he decides that attorneys should not do so.
Durst, now 78, is charged with the December 2000 shooting death of his longtime friend, Susan Berman, at her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.
The judge is allowing attorneys to give abbreviated opening statements anew — which are now expected May 18 or 19 — due to the lengthy disruption of the trial.
Jurors heard opening statements and two days of testimony before the case was put on hold in mid-March of last year due to concerns about COVID-19. The pandemic forced court officials to close the county’s courthouses to all but time-sensitive, essential matters.
In opening statements last year, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin alleged that Durst killed Berman after she told him she was going to talk to investigators looking into the still-unsolved 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
Durst was acquitted of murder in Texas after testifying that he killed his neighbor, Morris Black, in self-defense in September 2001. Los Angeles County prosecutors allege that Durst was in Galveston, Texas, while posing as a mute woman after authorities launched a new investigation into what had happened to Kathie Durst.
In his opening statement last year, the defendant’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, told jurors that Durst panicked after finding Berman’s body in her home while coming to visit her for the holidays. Durst wrote an anonymous “cadaver note” that was subsequently mailed to Beverly Hills police so her body would be found, DeGuerin said, noting that Durst would testify in his own defense.
Durst’s attorneys have argued that evidence about what happened to Black in Galveston would inflame the jury and should not be allowed at his trial. The judge has repeatedly denied the defense’s motions for a mistrial.
At a hearing last week, the judge said evidence of Black’s dismemberment and Kathie’s disappearance could be introduced at trial to support a special circumstance allegation that Berman was killed because she was a witness, rather than to prove Berman’s murder.
The judge said the prosecution could also use that evidence from Galveston to rebut the claim that Durst’s wife had merely disappeared rather than been killed.
Durst 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.”
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.
Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family reportedly paid him $60 million to $65 million.