Judge Allows Durst’s Damaging Admissions as Evidence

LOS ANGELES (CN) — When New York real estate heir Robert Durst goes on trial early next year for murder of a longtime friend, jurors will hear damaging admissions he made to his chief prosecutor during a long interview the day after his arrest, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham rejected pleas by Durst’s high-powered defense team that the eccentric multimillionaire, then newly arrested and being held in a New Orleans jail, was frail, cold and sleep-deprived when Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin interviewed him early on the morning of March 15, 2015. The defenders also complained that he had not been given a Miranda warning or allowed to contact any of his lawyers. 

But Windham held that Durst willingly agreed to speak to Lewin, who now is prosecuting him for special-circumstances murder. He was given a Miranda warning, yet he voluntarily waived his rights to stay silent or speak to an attorney, the judge found. Nor was he coerced or induced.

Windham pointed out that early in the nearly three-hour interview, Durst acknowledged that his lawyers would tell him not to talk to law enforcement. But Durst made numerous “damning admissions,” Lewin told the judge. “He made those because he didn’t care.”

Durst, 76, has pleaded not guilty to murdering his friend Susan Berman by shooting her in the back of the head in her Los Angeles cottage just before Christmas 2000. Prosecutors say he killed her so she could not reveal how she had helped him cover up the presumed murder of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen Durst, who has not been seen since Jan. 31, 1982.

During the March 2015 interview with Lewin, Durst acknowledged that he had been violent and very controlling toward Kathleen during their marriage. “All that was true,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview.

Several days after his wife disappeared, Durst filed a missing-person report with police in Westchester County, New York. He told Lewin that he lied to the police about aspects of his report.

“I wanted them to leave me alone,” he said, according to news reports and court papers from earlier in the case. “I wasn’t used to somebody questioning my veracity.”

At another point, Durst suggested to Lewin that he might be willing to accept a plea deal in exchange for help getting sent to a decent prison.

He also admitted that he was fleeing from his home in Houston when he was arrested in New Orleans. “I was the worst fugitive the world has ever met,” he said.

Windham made the ruling to admit the interview at the end of a two-day hearing on defense motions to suppress the interview and other evidence from Durst’s arrest.

Defense attorneys Dick DeGuerin of Houston and David Z. Chesnoff of Las Vegas argued that their client had a right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment when Lewin interviewed him.

Windham held that under California law, however, the Sixth Amendment right does not come into play until a defendant is formally charged with a crime. Although Los Angeles police had obtained an arrest warrant for him, Durst had not been charged with murder when he spoke to Lewin.

The judge rejected most other defense arguments attacking Durst’s arrest and the search of his hotel room. For instance, he ruled Durst’s answers to basic “identity” questions asked immediately after the arrest could be admitted at trial even though no Miranda warning had been given.

But Windham did agree to keep out statements Durst volunteered later, as FBI agents were searching his hotel room, because he still had not been given the warning. The agents did not have a search warrant.

Finally, the judge said that while the jury could hear everything Durst said during his long interview with Lewin, some of the prosecutor’s own statements and questions had to be kept out. 

As an example, he noted that Lewin, a cold-case specialist, told Durst he wins all his cases because the people he tries are all guilty. The judge said that statement would be improper “vouching” by Lewin because a jury could hear it as the prosecutor personally endorsing the idea that Durst was guilty, rather than relying on evidence.

At the end of the Wednesday hearing, Windham and the attorneys said Durst’s murder trial would be postponed until early January. It previously had been set for Sept. 7. The judge said he wants to work on selecting a jury before January if possible.

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