Former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Laraine Newman testified Thursday that she was ashamed she didn’t initially recognize the significance of a longtime friend telling her at some point before she was killed that she had provided a false alibi for Robert Durst in connection with the disappearance of the New York real estate scion’s first wife.
Newman — called as a witness in Durst’s murder trial for the December 2000 shooting death of writer Susan Berman — acknowledged under cross-examination that she told Deputy District Attorney John Lewin in 2015 that “there were times” that it was hard to know what was true and what wasn’t when it came to Berman and that Berman subsequently rescinded her account about the alibi.
“Do you remember telling Mr. Lewin in September of 2015, `I felt like I’m not sure it’s true,’ referring to the alibi issue, and `I don’t want to, you know, put forth something that could just be nonsense?,” one of Durst’s attorneys, David Chesnoff, asked.
“Yes,” she responded.
The prosecution witness — who testified that she was reluctantly appearing in court — acknowledged that she had told the prosecutor in a 2015 interview that she didn’t tell police who were looking into Berman’s death in 2001 about the alibi conversation because she simply didn’t remember it at the time. She said she doesn’t recall exactly when the conversation with Berman occurred.
Attorneys for both sides stipulated that Newman did not mention in the 2015 interview with investigators that the alibi involved a phone call.
“I knew it to be a false alibi from her telling me that,” said Newman, who now works in voiceover animation.
She said she was chagrined when she realized the significance of what Berman had told her.
“Well, I was ashamed that … I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what she was saying to me and that I blithely accepted her back-tracking and rescinding …,” Newman said, telling the panel that she felt she had been “feckless about this whole subject.”
She said she thinks that Berman took back the account of the false alibi because she sensed that she had “told me something that I didn’t approve of and wanted to back-pedal because she didn’t want to get in trouble.”
Berman’s longtime friend — whom she had met while Berman was working on an article about the “Saturday Night Live” cast and went out to eat on one occasion with Berman and Durst at the Apple Pan restaurant in Los Angeles — said the writer was a great storyteller and had a “drama queen personality,” but said her hyperbole was “usually in the context of extolling the virtues of her friends.”
Durst, now 78, and Berman had been close friends for years after the two met at UCLA. The murder charge against him includes the special circumstance allegation that she was killed because she was a witness to a crime.
Newman acknowledged using drugs regularly for 21 years until 1987.
“If you’re trying to drive a point to the idea that I would say something that didn’t happen, that’s not true,” she told Durst’s attorney.
She said that it was fair to say that Berman almost worshipped Durst and that she never knew of Berman representing him in a bad light.
In her first day on the stand Wednesday, Newman said that she learned of Kathie Durst’s disappearance when Berman told her that she had provided “an alibi for him, for Bobby, in relation to the disappearance.”
“I remember her saying that she made a phone call,” Newman said.
When asked how certain she was that Berman told her she had provided Durst with an alibi, she responded, “100%.”
“And in discussing this alibi, did she indicate to you whether or not in words whether this was an actual alibi or whether she had done something false?” the prosecutor asked.
“It was something false,” Newman said, noting that she “responded negatively” to Berman, whom she said subsequently attempted to take back the statement. The two never discussed the subject again, she said.
On Wednesday, Newman said she had “no doubt” that Berman had made the statement about the alibi to her.
The prosecution contends that Berman made a phone call posing as Kathie Durst, with Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, countering by calling Berman a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.”
The prosecutor told jurors earlier that the evidence would show that Durst shot and killed the 55-year-old Berman “out of survival” because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
During an updated opening statement last month when the trial resumed after more than a yearlong delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewin called the cases of Kathie Durst and Berman “interrelated,” and told jurors they would hear evidence that Durst killed his wife and used Berman to help cover up his part in the crime, and that he subsequently had to kill another person, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, in 2001, because the man figured out who Durst was and was putting pressure on him.
“Susan Berman never saw what happened. She never knew it was going to happen. She turned around because she trusted him because he was her close friend. He was not someone to fear … She took a few steps and he basically blew her brains out,” Lewin said.
DeGuerin countered that his client had no motive to kill his longtime friend in her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles and had nothing to gain from her killing.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did,” DeGuerin told the panel twice, reiterating his opening statement to jurors in March 2020.
Durst — who contended that Black was killed during a struggle over a gun before Durst dismembered his neighbor — was acquitted in Texas of that killing.
Durst’s attorney contends the disappearance of Kathie Durst and Berman’s killing were “completely dissimilar” to Black’s shooting death.
“Whoever killed Susan Berman left no clues. Kathie Durst disappeared without a trace. After Morris Black’s death, the police found hundreds of clues,” the defense attorney told the jury.
DeGuerin said Durst went to Berman’s home in December 2000, found his close friend dead and “freaked out,” then sent a note to Beverly Hills police about her body.
DeGuerin also told jurors that his client — whom he said suffered from what has been known as Asperger’s syndrome — has “been considered a little bit weird” and run away all of his life and “doesn’t make what we would consider good decisions,” reminding jurors that they will hear from the defendant during the trial.
DeGuerin said Durst “had no motive and nothing to gain” by Berman’s death, noting later that there was no forensic evidence linking his client to that killing. He also disputed the prosecution’s contention that Berman made a phone call posing as Kathie Durst and called Berman a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.”
DeGuerin told the panel that a six-part HBO 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.”
DeGuerin said his client “wanted his story out,” but chose the wrong people to tell that story and realized by the time the fifth episode aired that it was a “hatchet job.”
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.
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 under which the family reportedly paid him $60 million to $65 million.