Defense attorneys say Robert Durst only wanted to tell his side of the story when he agreed to be part of the HBO documentary series “The Jinx” that eventually led to his arrest for the murder of his friend.
LOS ANGELES (CN) — On two separate occasions, New York millionaire Robert Durst found himself face to face with a dead body.
In December 2000, he found his longtime friend Susan Berman dead in her Los Angeles home with a gunshot wound to the head.
And in October 2001 in Galveston, Texas, Durst’s handgun fired during a struggle with his elderly neighbor Morris Black, killing Black.
Both times Durst ran.
While a jury acquitted Durst of Black’s murder in 2003, prosecutors in LA charged him in 2015 with Berman’s murder. He maintains he only found his friend’s body and, in a panic, fled.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman and did not know who did,” said his defense attorney Dick Deguerin on Wednesday in the second day of the long-awaited restart to the murder trial. “Bob Durst had no motive, nothing to gain, by the death of Susan Berman.”
Prosecutors see it differently: they say Berman’s murder is linked to the disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathie.
Durst, now 78, listened as his defense attorney explained that after Durst ran from Berman’s home he sent an anonymous handwritten note to the Beverly Hills Police Department with her address and a single word: cadaver.
“For years he denied writing the note. It’s so obvious if you’ve ever seen Bob’s handwriting that that’s Bob’s handwriting,” said Deguerin.
The handwriting on the note is an important piece of evidence in the case against Durst and was prominently featured in the 2015 HBO documentary series “The Jinx”, which explored Durst’s life story and his connection to three possible murders.
According to Durst, he sent the letter to police because he was afraid Berman would lie dead in her home for days and nobody would find her. Prosecutors say Durst killed Berman because she helped him cover up his first wife’s murder.
Less than a year after finding Berman’s body, Durst moved into an apartment in Galveston where he disguised himself as a mute woman named “Dorothy,” according to Deguerin. Black figured out Durst’s true identity after a national news program profiled the disappearance of Kathie Durst.
With his identity blown Durst was going to flee Texas when Black confronted him, Deguerin told jurors. During their struggle, Durst’s .22-caliber target pistol went off and shot Black in the face. But instead of writing a note, Durst went to a hardware store and bought a bone saw, tarp and bags.
“It was his house, his gun and he thought the police would never believe him. He sat on his bed and tried to decide what to do,” Deguerin told the jury. “He decided he had to move the body and dispose of it. By the time he made that decision rigor mortis had set in. The body was stiff. He couldn’t move it. So, he decided to dismember the body. Awful…awful.”
It has been 15 months since the defense spoke to the jury in the murder trial. Jurors listened to testimony from 10 witnesses called by the prosecution in early 2020 before the pandemic upended the trial. Judge Mark Windham allowed the attorneys to deliver a second round of opening arguments, which began Monday.
Durst sat in a wheelchair at the defense table with his back to the jury. At one point he turned his chair around and stared at them from behind a white face mask. He listened as Deguerin described his marriage to Kathie and her disappearance in 1982. Her body was never found and Durst has never been charged in her disappearance.
Prosecutors say Berman called Kathie’s medical school pretending to be her after she disappeared to help Durst. But while prosecutors say Kathie would have called her adviser rather than the dean of the medical school to say she wasn’t feeling well, the defense argues Kathie had a good relationship with the dean.
Durst’s attorneys say there’s no connection between the two women. Deguerin described Kathie as a medical student who used cocaine and did not do well in school. He described Durst as a man who has made poor choices due to his autism.
“The Jinx” was produced by Andrew Jarecki, who also directed a dramatized film on Durst’s life. Durst agreed to be part of the documentary because he wanted to tell his story, Deguerin told jurors, but said Durst realized after its release it wasn’t a documentary at all.
“By the time of the fifth segment, it became obvious to Bob that this was a hatchet job. That it wasn’t his story as he wanted it told. It was a heavily edited story to make good entertainment,” said Deguerin. “After the fifth segment Bob again panicked. He left his apartment in Houston. He had a gun with him, he had a mask with him, he had a fake ID with him.”
When the last episode of the series aired Durst was in hiding in New Orleans. The final scene included Durst caught on a hot mic saying that he “kill them all of course.”
“Bob finally realized what Jarecki and his crew were trying to show. That he killed them all. He knew that he had been fooled and he panicked and he ran,” said Deguerin.
A few days later, police arrested on suspicion of murdering Berman with warrant signed by an LA judge.
Prosecutors began calling witnesses Wednesday including the police officer who was called to Berman’s home after her body was discovered, a medical examiner and a school official who worked at the Kathie’s medical school. The prosecution’s case resumes Thursday.