After Yearlong Pandemic Freeze, Robert Durst Murder Trial Kicks Off

In court for the first time since the pandemic began and facing charges of murdering his friend Susan Berman, Robert Durst — and jurors — watched his life play out in clips.

In this March 5, 2020 photo real estate heir Robert Durst, middle, sits with his defense attorneys, David Chesnoff, left, and Dick DeGuerin during his murder trial at the Airport Branch Courthouse in Los Angeles. (Robyn Beck/Pool Photo via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Jurors in a Los Angeles County courtroom experienced a bit of déjà vu Tuesday when prosecutors launched into their second opening arguments in the murder case against New York millionaire Robert Durst, roughly 15 months after the pandemic stalled the trial.

Durst, 78, appeared in court wearing a white face mask and a blue suit coat. From his wheelchair, he followed a live transcript of the prosecution’s argument that he killed his longtime friend Susan Berman in December 2000. LA County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham allowed the attorneys to give the jurors a recap on the case against the wealthy real estate heir charged with Berman’s murder.

“He didn’t want to kill her,” said Deputy District Attorney John Lewin during his opening argument. “He killed her out of a survival. He believed, and this comes from his own mouth, he believed that in the end it was her or me.”

Berman’s dogs were seen running outside her home the day her body was found. She was shot in the back of the head, Lewin said, because Berman knew her murderer. She opened the door and let that person into her home, turned her back to him and then he shot her. There were no signs of forced entry and the home had not been ransacked.

“Nothing was taken that day other than Susan’s life,” Lewin said.

While he’s only charged in Berman’s murder, prosecutors say Durst’s prime motive hinges on his first wife’s disappearance. Berman acted as an alibi for Durst when Kathie McCormack Durst disappeared in 1982. A medical school dean received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as Kathie Durst saying she would not report for work, but prosecutors say Berman made the call and multiple witnesses will testify that was a secret Berman shared with a few people.

Durst listened to a summary of his own life story and excerpts from the 2015 HBO documentary series “The Jinx” and the 2010 film drama “All Good Things,” in which actor Ryan Gosling portrayed Durst. In a matryoshka-like series of scenes nestled in other scenes, Durst watched himself in the documentary comment on Gosling’s performance in a scene in which his character pulls his wife’s hair during an argument.

“That’s close enough,” Durst said in the documentary about the scene’s accuracy to his real life. In court he did not react.

Prosecutors say Durst, who was 10 years older than Kathie, was controlling and abusive. When she disappeared, Durst waited four days until he reported her missing. Lewin told jurors Durst was surprised when police began to question him about Kathie’s disappearance. A building manager found all of Kathie’s belongings thrown into a trash bin, including her medical books — she dreamed of becoming a pediatrician — a short time after she disappeared.

Berman acted as Durst’s spokesperson when Kathie disappeared and would have known much more than she let on over the years, Lewin said. Before she died, she lied to Durst and said a police detective wanted to question her about Kathie’s disappearance. Durst faces a special circumstance charge of murdering a witness.

Around the time Berman was murdered, Durst lived in Galveston, Texas, where he disguised himself as a mute woman. Prosecutors say that’s when his neighbor Morris Black recognized Durst after ABC News aired a segment about him.

According to Durst, when Black confronted him a struggle ensued and a handgun accidently went off. Durst admitted to dismembering Black’s body and dumping the pieces Galveston Bay. A Texas jury acquitted Durst of killing and dismembering Black in 2003.

“All three of these cases are interrelated,” Lewin told the jury Tuesday.

During the day-long opening argument, Durst listened and read the live transcript of the hearing on an electronic monitor. He seldom moved during the hearing.

“It’s important to understand as you’re looking at this case, Bob Durst sits here and he is a frail old man. He probably weights 110 pounds,” Lewin told jurors. “But that’s not who Robert Durst was in 1982. It’s not who he was in 2000. And that’s really important that as you examine the evidence, that you do so not through the lens that you’re looking at now, not at this old man who looks extremely frail, you look at it through who he was when this was happening.”

The defense is expected to make their opening arguments for the second time Wednesday.

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