Six years after his arrest, New York real estate scion Robert Durst took the stand in his own defense Monday, quickly denying involvement in the killing of a friend and confidante in Benedict Canyon and insisting he doesn’t know who carried out the slaying.
The 78-year-old Durst — appearing frail, speaking in a soft raspy voice and struggling to hear questions from his lawyer — testified while sitting in the wheelchair that he has used throughout the trial.
His attorney, Dick DeGuerin, wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter, opening his questioning by asking Durst if he killed Susan Berman in December 2000.
Durst quickly answered, “No.”
Asked by DeGuerin if he knows who did kill Berman, Durst said, “No, I do not.”
Durst, dressed in jail attire, then described for jurors a litany of health issues that plague him, including bladder cancer. In response to questions from his attorney, he also described episodes from his childhood, most notably the night when he was 7 years old and his mother fell or jumped to her death from the roof of his family’s home.
His testimony was frequently interrupted by prosecution objections to questions, and to Durst’s often-rambling, narrative answers. Durst’s inability to hear often led to him continuing to speak even after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham sustained objections to questions.
Berman was a 55-year-old writer whom Durst met while at UCLA. Prosecutors contend Durst killed her because she was prepared to speak to police about a renewed investigation into the disappearance and presumed death of Durst’s first wife, Kathie.
Durst has repeatedly maintained his innocence, and his attorneys contend there is no evidence linking him to Berman’s killing.
Questioned about his relationship with Berman, Durst testified that they became fast friends after realizing they had much in common, including having been raised by people other than their parents, and the fact that “we were both rich” and “had trust funds set up by our parents.”
When Berman graduated from UCLA, she applied to UC Berkeley to seek a master’s in journalism. She eventually became a minor celebrity in San Francisco after she penned a piece for now-defunct City Magazine titled “In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why Can’t I Get Laid?” The San Francisco Chronicle picked it up and ran a photo of its author, Durst told jurors.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told jurors at the onset of the trial that the evidence would show that Durst shot and killed Berman “out of survival” because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
During his updated opening statement, Lewin called the cases of Kathie Durst and Susan 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 his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, in 2001, because the man figured out who Durst was and was putting pressure on him.
Durst was acquitted of murder in Texas after testifying that he killed 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 began a new investigation into what had happened to Kathie Durst.
DeGuerin 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.”
The defense attorney also 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.”
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.
Last week, testimony in Durst’s trial was cut short after the judge learned Thursday afternoon that someone in the courtroom had tested positive for COVID-19. The case involved “an individual present in the courtroom, but not a member of either trial team,” according to a court statement released Friday.
“Furthermore, Judge Windham learned that this individual — in defiance of strict COVID-19 court and public health protocols — had been experiencing symptoms for several days, but nonetheless attended the trial,” according to the court.
“… After review of the facts, including contact tracing and an assessment of close contacts under established public health definitions, Judge Windham and the court have determined that the circumstances do not warrant further recess of the trial.”
The trial resumed as scheduled Monday morning.
The person who tested positive was not identified. The Wrap reported that the person was a relative of someone on Durst’s legal team.
According to the statement from the court, the person who tested positive was wearing a mask while in court.