New York real estate scion Robert Durst denied Tuesday in his murder trial that he had ever confessed to a friend that he “had to do it” and that it was “her or me” in connection with a longtime confidante’s killing at her Benedict Canyon home just before Christmas Eve 2000.
“At or after a dinner in Harlem, did you say to Nick Chavin, `I had to do it. It was her or me?” Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, asked shortly before wrapping up his questioning of the 78-year-old defendant, who is charged with Susan Berman’s shooting death.
“No,” Durst responded.
Durst, who has long denied being involved in the killing, said he found the 55-year-old writer’s lifeless body after arriving at her home and sent an anonymous note to police notifying them about a “cadaver” in the house.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told jurors in his updated opening statement in May that the evidence would show Durst shot and killed Berman “out of survival” because he feared she would tell authorities about his involvement in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
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.
DeGuerin previously told jurors that his client “showed up and found her dead” and “panicked.”
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and he does not know who did,” DeGuerin said in May when the trial resumed after being stalled for more than a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeGuerin disputed the prosecution’s contention that Berman made a phone call posing as Kathie Durst after she disappeared in 1982, and called Berman a “storyteller” who had a “great imagination” and “made things up.”
During the prosecution’s portion of the case, jurors heard the videotaped account of Chavin, a longtime friend of both Durst and Berman, who testified in 2017 that Durst had told him about Berman, “I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice.”
Chavin denied concocting the account, but acknowledged that it took about seven months of discussions with prosecutors before he told them about Durst’s alleged confession and said that he wasn’t ready earlier to disclose what he had heard.
Under questioning by DeGuerin, Durst said he decided — against the advice of others including an attorney — to speak with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki for a series of interviews that later became the six-part HBO series, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which examined Kathie Durst’s disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
Durst said a bathroom recording of him in which he said, “There it is, you’re caught,” referred to the cadaver note. He had been confronted by Jarecki about the cadaver note and two envelopes addressed to Berman and acknowledged that it was pretty obvious that the handwriting was the same, even though he had denied for years that he had written the note to police.
When asked what he meant by his recorded comment “killed them all, of course” that was shown during the series, Durst said, “What I did not say out loud or perhaps I said very softly, `They’ll all think I killed them all, of course.”’
He testified that he has talked to himself since he was a little boy.
“It seems I talk to myself about my thoughts, so some of what I’m thinking I do not say out loud,” Durst testified during his fifth day on the stand.
Durst — who said it was a “very, very, very big mistake” for him to expect that the series would be favorable to him — told jurors he subscribed to HBO so he could watch the series and became convinced by the fifth segment that he was going to be arrested and decided to travel from Houston to New Orleans to go into hiding. He said he took a gun because he was going to shoot himself.
He said he subsequently opted to speak with the prosecutor and two Los Angeles police detectives after his arrest in New Orleans because the jail there was “filthy” and he wanted a plea bargain so he would be moved out of Louisiana and to California, which he said is “known for treating its inmates like human beings.”
“Did you mean a plea bargain to the murder of Susan Berman?” DeGuerin asked his client.
“If I’d been offered the right deal, I would have confessed to murdering Susan Berman, to murdering (his first wife) Kathie Durst, to murdering John Lennon, to murdering Jack Kennedy, to murdering Morris Black and to murdering anybody else’s name I could think of,” Durst responded.
“Even if you weren’t guilty of killing Susan Berman or the disappearance of Kathie or the killing of Morris Black or John Lennon or John F. Kennedy or whoever else you would have pled guilty to?” DeGuerin asked.
“Yes,” Durst responded just minutes before the prosecutor began what is expected to be a lengthy cross-examination. He said he had been diagnosed in 2014 by two medical clinics as having a life expectancy of less than five years.
When asked by the prosecutor if that was still Durst’s position about a plea bargain, the defendant responded, “No. What I want today is to be acquitted.”
In testimony Monday, Durst said he had decided he wanted to tell his story in the HBO series because he hated “being rejected everywhere” including by co-op and condominium boards following his acquittal on a charge that he murdered Black.
He told jurors that he was “scared” upon seeing Black with a gun, struggled with him for control of the weapon and “the gun went off.” He had also testified in his own defense in his trial in Texas, in which he was acquitted of Black’s murder.
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.
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.