Judge Orders Robert Durst Tried on Murder Charge

Robert Durst

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Quoting Robert Durst’s own words from a television documentary, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Thursday ordered the eccentric multimillionaire to stand trial on charges of murdering his close friend 18 years ago.

Durst, the 75-year-old scion of a powerful New York real estate family, is accused of shooting journalist and author Susan Berman inside her Beverly Hills-area cottage shortly before Christmas 2000. Prosecutors say Durst killed Berman, whom he’d known since college, because she knew he had killed his wife, Kathleen, years before in New York.

Kathleen Durst vanished in early 1982. Her body has never been found, and no charges have been brought in her disappearance.

In finding enough evidence against Durst, Judge Mark E. Windham said Durst had effectively provided “a succinct confession” when he unwittingly talked to himself while wearing a live mic during filming of the six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”

“There it is. You’re caught,” Durst said. And. “Killed them all, of course.”

“It’s cryptic,” Windham declared at the end of eight days of preliminary hearings. “But without an explanation from the defendant, it operates as a succinct confession to the murders with which he’s been confronted.”

Durst has denied killing either Berman or his long-missing wife.

Other evidence indicating Durst’s guilt, according to the judge, was his surprising fondness for a fictional movie based on his life called “All Good Things,” in which he is portrayed as killing both women, a neighbor in Texas and a dog, according to prosecutors.

Durst did kill — and dismember —a neighbor, Morris Black, when he was hiding out in Galveston, Texas, in 2001. He was acquitted of the murder on self-defense grounds, but he did serve some time for tampering with evidence.

Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said that, in interviews about the movie, Durst complained only about being shown as killing his dog, never about being portrayed as a triple murderer.

Windham found that Durst’s comments on the film amounted to an “adoptive admission” of its claims.

In fact, Durst sought out the filmmakers, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, just before “All Good Things” was released in late 2010. He sat for three days of interviews with them that December, which they then used in making “The Jinx” documentary about him.

Jarecki and Smerling brought him back in mid-2012 for another interview and to provide commentary on “All Good Things” for its DVD version. In his commentary, Durst declared that scenes showing his character, played by Ryan Gosling, fighting with his wife, played by Kirsten Dunst, and pulling her around by the hair were accurate.

A third piece of critical evidence against Durst was what is known as the “cadaver letter,” Windham held.

A day or two after Berman’s murder, police in Beverly Hills received an anonymous letter, written in block capital letters, declaring simply “cadaver” and giving Berman’s address. The word Beverly was misspelled as “Beverley” with an extra E.

Windham said a handwriting expert had confirmed that the envelope and letter were written by Durst.

Further, Jarecki and Smerling had been given a note that Durst mailed to Berman shortly before her death. The envelope was addressed to her in “Beverley” Hills, with the extra E, and the block printing matched the printing on the cadaver letter and envelope.

When the filmmakers showed copies of Berman’s address from both letters to Durst, he could not tell them apart.

It was shortly after that portion of “The Jinx” was filmed that Durst muttered to himself in a bathroom that he had “killed them all, of course.”

The “bathroom audio” scene is the best-known one in “The Jinx.” But evidence presented Wednesday during the preliminary hearing showed it had been edited for dramatic effect.

In “The Jinx,” Durst seems to ask himself, “What did I do?” before responding: “Killed them all, of course.” In the unedited recording Lewin played in court, however, Durst says: “Killed them all, of course” about a full minute before saying, “What did I do?”

In addition to holding Durst to answer for murder, Windham said he would be tried on the special circumstances charge of killing a witness. If convicted of that, he would be sentenced to life without parole.

Prosecutors called Berman a witness because she could have testified that she helped Durst obscure the facts of Kathleen Durst’s disappearance, on Jan. 31, 1982. Kathleen, a fourth-year medical student at the time, apparently called the dean of her medical school the day after she disappeared, Feb. 1, to say she was too ill to show up for rounds.

During the preliminary hearing — as well as during a series of earlier special hearings to preserve testimony from elderly witnesses — several Berman friends said she told them she had done a significant favor for her good friend Bobby back then, and even that she had placed the call to the dean for him.

Durst clearly believed she was a witness to a crime, Windham said during his ruling Thursday afternoon. “There was no other possible motive,” he said.

The judge also found that Durst lay in wait to kill Berman and that he used a gun during the crime. Those special allegations could add years to his potential sentence.

David Chesnoff, one of Durst’s defense attorneys, argued that there were no witnesses or forensic evidence — “no fingerprints, no DNA, no weapons” — connecting Durst to the crime scene. He said it was illogical for Lewin to claim Durst lay in wait for Berman while also saying she was expecting Durst to visit her at the time.

In an impassioned closing argument, prosecutor Lewin said there was “absolutely, conclusively, overwhelmingly” enough evidence that Durst killed Berman. “The evidence we put on in this case is beyond any doubt.”

Durst was charged with the murder in March 2015 in New Orleans, where he had been arrested on charges of possessing drugs and a gun. Just before he was arraigned on those charges, he gave Lewin a nearly three-hour interview about his life and the charges against him.

In that interview and those with Jarecki and Smerling, Durst admitted to using violence against his wife, the prosecutor said.

“It is chilling,” Lewin said. “It is breathtaking.”

Durst also admitted telling lies to New York police about the night Kathleen vanished. He said in the interviews that he was surprised that the police “questioned [his] veracity” and conducted “oodles and oodles” of investigation.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2007, Durst now is frail and bent, with a large scar on the side of his head from brain surgery. He has poor hearing and difficulty walking.

During Thursday’s hearing, he appeared unusually tired and had to be given two breaks to rest. On several occasions, he interrupted the proceedings calling out “sleep” and “no more.”

Chesnoff said Durst had not been picked up from the courthouse until 9 p.m. Wednesday to go back to the medical facility where he is held. He was awakened at 3 a.m. to return to court.

Lewin told the judge that although Durst appears “decrepit” and “pathetic,” not to forget that he had murdered three people. “It’s time he pays for what he’s done,” he said.

Moments later, Durst rolled his wheelchair toward the door and, waiving at the judge, said, “And away we go. Bye. Have a nice weekend.” A bailiff and one of his attorneys brought him back.

Lewin said Durst must return to court Nov. 8 for arraignment.

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