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.”
Though the eldest son of a rich and powerful real estate magnate in New York, Durst had a difficult life, DeGuerin said. At 7 years old, he saw his mother fall or jump to her death from the roof of their home.
He also is on the autism spectrum, with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. He is socially awkward, does not express emotion well and cannot easily read social cues, DeGuerin said.
That condition figured in what DeGuerin spent most of his time talking about during his opening statement: the shooting death and dismemberment of Morris Black.
After Berman’s death and with New York officials reinvestigating Kathie’s disappearance, Durst went on the run disguised as a mute woman, hiding out in a $300-a-month apartment in Galveston, Texas, where Black was his neighbor. After Black’s torso and limbs were discovered in trash bags floating in shallow waters of Galveston Bay, Durst was charged with murder.
DeGuerin and another member of his current defense team, Chip Lewis, also from Houston, obtained a not-guilty verdict for him on self-defense grounds in 2003. Durst did plead guilty to tampering with evidence for chopping up the body. The head was never found.
Prosecutor Lewin told the jury he will prove Durst murdered Black to “eliminate a problem” because Black had learned Durst’s identity and history.
DeGuerin said the two men struggled after Black brandished a gun, which went off as they fell to the floor. “The evidence will show that Bob’s finger was not on the trigger,” he said. “Morris Black’s finger was on the trigger.”
Durst dismembered Black in a panic, once again fearing he would be blamed. “Bob doesn’t make good decisions,” DeGuerin said. “It’s terrible.”
In a second portion of the defense opening statement, co-counsel David Z. Chesnoff of Las Vegas said the prosecution’s case is built largely on circumstantial evidence.
“No evidence is evidence,” he told the jury several times, adding later, “The lack of evidence means there is no evidence.”
For instance, he said, the prosecution has no proof that Durst and Berman spoke on Jan. 31 or Feb. 1, 1982, to arrange for her to help cover up Kathie Durst’s disappearance. If she didn’t help him, then he would have no motive to kill her in 2000, Chesnoff said.
“This is the entire premise of the prosecution, and you will see that the prosecution has no evidence at all.”
He said Los Angeles police found no forensic evidence in Berman’s house that Durst committed the murder, such as his fingerprints, blood, shoe prints or DNA. And they did not explore evidence that Susan had struggled with her killer, including small contusions on her thigh and the phone disconnected and off the hook, he said.
Lewin told the jury there was no struggle because Berman knew her killer, Durst, who shot her from behind.
While Chesnoff said there is no evidence tying Durst to the crimes, several friends of Berman testified in earlier hearings that she told them bits of information about having made a phone call pretending to be Kathie Durst.
Chesnoff said those witnesses’ memories of conversations are recent false memories that arose after “The Jinx” was broadcast in 2015. He said the defense will bring in renowned “suppressed memory” debunker and expert, Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at UC Irvine.
Lewin told the jury several times that much of the most damaging evidence against Durst will come from Durst himself, such as in interviews with the producers of “The Jinx” and with Lewin himself and in recorded phone calls while in custody.
“Almost every key piece of evidence you will hear in this case was corroborated by Bob Durst over and over again,” Lewin said.
He said that Durst loves to talk about himself, lies regularly and then can’t remember the lies he’s told.
That could mean Durst’s decision to testify in this trial is risky. Yet he did win acquittal on the Morris Black murder charge after taking the stand.
“Maybe he thinks he has the magic touch,” said Loyola’s Levenson.