Mr. Durst, the eccentric millionaire who has been the subject of books and documentaries, is accused of killing a close confidante in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2000.,
After a 14-Month Delay, Robert Durst’s Murder Trial Returns to Court
Mr. Durst, the eccentric millionaire who has been the subject of books and documentaries, is accused of killing a close confidante in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2000.
Robert Durst, middle, sits with his defense attorneys, David Chesnoff, left, and Dick DeGuerin, during his murder trial in March 2020.Credit…Robyn Beck/Pool, AFP, via Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Robert A. Durst has been trailed by the suspicions of investigators in several states over his possible involvement in three deaths that stretch back 40 years.
This week in Los Angeles, the murder trial in one of those cases is set to resume with the same jury despite an extraordinary 14-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Durst — the eccentric 78-year-old real estate scion who became the subject of books, movies and television specials — is accused of the execution-style killing of a close confidante, Susan Berman, at her Beverly Hills, Calif., home in December 2000. His trial had only just begun last year when the pandemic forced the courts to close down.
His lawyers called the 14-month delay the longest adjournment in U.S. history featuring the same jury. They argued that the jurors could have forgotten information from the start of the trial, discussed the case with others or watched television programs about the case. Before the trial’s suspension, however, it was the defense that asked for an adjournment because of public health concerns.
In a brief hearing on Monday, Judge Mark E. Windham brought jurors back to the courtroom and interviewed each one. Prosecutors and lawyers for Mr. Durst were expected to return to court on Tuesday for new, but abbreviated, opening statements in a case filled with true crime staples: a powerful New York real estate family, a murder mystery, cross-dressing, a beheading, family betrayals and celebrities.
A deputy district attorney, John Lewin, plans to call 100 witnesses and offer raw excerpts from more than 20 hours of interviews by the producers of the 2015 HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” Mr. Lewin also plans on revealing portions of his nearly three-hour interview of Mr. Durst and hundreds of jailhouse phone calls.
“Much of the most damaging evidence is going to come directly from Mr. Durst himself, out of his own mouth,” Mr. Lewin told the jury last March.
Although Mr. Durst is only charged with killing Ms. Berman, the prosecution contends that her death is connected to the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Durst’s first wife in 1982, and the death and dismemberment of a drifter he had befriended in 2001. Mr. Durst was acquitted in 2003 of killing the drifter, Morris Black, who lived across the hall from him in a rooming house in Galveston, Texas, where he was hiding from the authorities as a mute woman.
Mr. Durst, a frail millionaire who shuffles into court with painfully slow deliberation, has long insisted on his innocence. Estranged from his family for a quarter-century, he has spent much of the past six years in a medical ward at the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles.
Mr. Durst has spent much of the past six years in the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times
His defense team, led by Dick DeGuerin, has told the jury that there was no hard evidence linking him to Ms. Berman’s death. The HBO documentary, Mr. DeGuerin said, was a Hollywood concoction designed to make Mr. Durst look bad. Prosecutors say the documentary, which will not be played in court, shows Mr. Durst in his own words.
For many years, Mr. Durst vehemently denied that he was even in Los Angeles at the time of Ms. Berman’s death. But in late 2019, Mr. Durst’s lawyers conceded that not only was he in Los Angeles, but that he was the author of an anonymous letter alerting the Beverly Hills police of a “cadaver” at Ms. Berman’s bungalow.
In its opening statement last year, the defense said Mr. Durst fled after finding Ms. Berman’s body when he went to visit her around Christmas.
“Yes, Bob found the body of Susan Berman on Dec. 23, 2000, and he notified police of her body as he wrote what police call the ‘cadaver note,'” David Chesnoff, another lawyer on the defense team, told the jury. “But he didn’t murder Susan.”
Mr. Durst plans to testify and is expected to undergo a withering cross-examination by Mr. Lewin, a prosecutor who specializes in cold cases. Mr. Durst’s brother Douglas, who oversees the Durst family’s $5 billion real estate empire, is a witness for the prosecution, as is Nick Chavin, a longtime friend of Mr. Durst’s.
In recent months, the defense has unsuccessfully argued for a mistrial based on the unusually long delay in the proceedings and federal court rulings. Most recently, the defense sought an emergency order suspending the trial because they said Mr. Durst — who has numerous medical issues — was physically incapable of assisting in his own defense.
For all his frailty, Mr. Durst seems well aware of what is going on around him. Last month, he gave a handwritten three-page letter to Judge Windham excoriating his $10 million defense team. He objected to an agreement his lawyers made with the prosecutor to use videotaped testimony of 17 prosecution witnesses, instead of calling them for trial again. Judge Windham cited the letter on Monday, saying there was no evidence that Mr. Durst was mentally incompetent.
“I cannot imagine why the 4 defense lawyers agreed to the stipulation,” Mr. Durst wrote in the letter. “Perhaps they were experiencing temporary insanity or some form of collective dementia.”