LOS ANGELES (CN) — Robert Durst, accused of murdering his close friend nearly 20 years ago, will testify that he discovered her body but did not kill her, his defense attorney told jurors and a stunned courtroom audience on Tuesday.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman, and he does not know who did,” Dick DeGuerin said in his opening statement.
But, DeGuerin continued, “he did find her body shortly after someone had shot her in the back of the head.”
The statement was the first time the multimillionaire real estate heir or his defense team have admitted he was in Berman’s home, or even in Los Angeles, after years of denials.
The fact that Durst, 76 and frail, will take the risky move of testifying in his own defense “will be the highlight of the trial,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie L. Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.
“It may be that he thinks he has nothing to lose and can spin the story better than anyone else.”
Prosecutors, led by Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, say Durst killed the 55-year-old Berman to prevent her from telling investigators how she helped Durst cover up the murder of his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst. Kathie Durst was last seen in January 1982 and her body has never been found.
Lewin spent a large part of his opening statement last week detailing how he believed Durst flew from his home in New York to San Francisco and then surreptitiously drove to Los Angeles to kill Berman.
DeGuerin on Tuesday told the eight-woman, four-man jury that Durst had come to spend the Christmas holidays with Berman, his longtime friend from college. Durst entered her small cottage using his own key.
“When Bob showed up and found her body, he panicked,” DeGuerin said. “He wrote the anonymous letter so her body would be found, and he ran.”
The letter was a short note mailed to the Beverly Hills police stating only “cadaver” and giving Berman’s address.
In a 2015 documentary series about Durst called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” he denied writing the note and said that whoever had written it must have been Berman’s killer.
Both the note’s envelope and one from a 1999 letter Durst sent Berman were written in block, capital letters, and both misspelled “Beverly” as “Beverley.” In an interview with producers in “The Jinx,” Durst was unable to distinguish between the two.
Faced with daunting evidence from handwriting experts, Durst’s defense team stipulated on Dec. 24, 2019, that he did write the “cadaver note,” as well as what could be a to-do list for disposing of Kathie Durst’s body, called the “dig note.”
DeGuerin said Durst ran after discovering Berman’s body because he feared he would be considered guilty of the crime, as he had been after his young wife’s disappearance 18 years before.
“He’s run away all his life,” DeGuerin said.
“Bob doesn’t make good decisions,” he said later. “It’s part of his makeup.”