LOS ANGELES (CN) — Describing New York multimillionaire Robert Durst as a man who kills people who get in his way, a Los Angeles prosecutor won a judge’s approval to examine two witnesses – including a secret witness – in court well before Durst goes on trial for the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham agreed Friday to take testimony from Dr. Albert Kuperman and the unidentified witness on Feb. 14 under a state law that allows “conditional examinations” of witnesses at risk of dying or disappearing before trial.
Kuperman is 86, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said, while prosecutors fear the unidentified witness might be killed.
“That man kills witnesses,” Lewin said of Durst. “When pushed into a corner, he murders people.”
Windham ruled that the district attorney’s office must identify and turn over discovery about the secret witness on Jan. 31 to give the defense time to prepare.
Lewin said he anticipates requesting advance conditional examinations of several other witnesses, including at least one other unidentified witness.
Durst is charged in the execution-style shooting of Berman, his companion and spokeswoman, allegedly because she knew about his involvement in the 1982 disappearance of his wife in New York. Though she is presumed dead, Kathie Durst’s body has never been found and no charges have been brought.
Durst did admit killing and dismembering a neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas, in 2001. A jury that year accepted his claim that he shot Black in self-defense and acquitted him of murder, instead finding him guilty of tampering with evidence and jumping bail.
Prosecutors say Black died because he had figured out that the strange, mute woman living in the same apartment building with him was actually Durst. They say Durst was hiding out in Texas because law enforcement officials in Westchester County, New York, had reopened their investigation into his wife’s disappearance.
They say Durst killed Berman because she had decided to come clean to authorities about posing as Kathie Durst in a phone call to Kuperman after Kathie was already dead.
Durst’s defense team argued Friday that their client is far from dangerous. Now 73 years old, Durst is frail and confined to a wheelchair. A cancer survivor suffering from several other ailments, he has said he has only five years to live.
“Mr. Durst is in a wheelchair in custody. … He has all his phone conversations recorded and listened to” by the prosecution team, Durst attorney David Z. Chesnoff said.
But Lewin responded that the wealthy real estate magnate is worth $100 million. “This is a man who has shown the inclination, the ability and the desire to harm anybody who gets in his way,” he said.
He pointed to what he described as a “chilling” incident when Durst was arrested for shoplifting in 2001 after jumping bail in Texas. Lewin said Durst volunteered to get his identification from the glove compartment of his car, but a police officer refused.
“What that officer found in that glove box was not identification. It was a loaded .38,” the prosecutor told Windham.
Chesnoff also complained that the defense team has already received 150,000 pages of discovery in the case but so far knows nothing about the mystery witness.
The two weeks from Jan. 31 to the conditional exam Feb. 14 will not give them enough time to go through material on the witness, he said, particularly since they will have to cross-examine the person as though he or she were testifying at trial.
“We are only asking that this proceed in an orderly way so we can examine these witnesses in an orderly way,” he said.
The judge responded that two weeks, or 10 court days, is more than the time required by the state law or appellate precedent on conditional examinations. He pointed out that prosecutors will be able to use the advance testimony, which will be videotaped, only if the witness is unavailable at trial.
“But you can,” Windham told Chesnoff. The defense can use the testimony to impeach the witness if he or she gives inconsistent testimony during the trial. “I see it as a win-win-win,” the judge said.
The attorneys and the judge also agreed to hold a second hearing the next day, Feb. 15, on whether to admit Durst’s statements from a three-hour interview Lewin conducted after his arrest last year in New Orleans.
Following Friday’s two-hour hearing, Durst’s lead attorney, famed Texas criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, said his client “is looking forward to proving his innocence.”
Asked if Durst is a danger to witnesses, DeGuerin said, “Of course not.”