LOS ANGELES (CN) — The jury in Robert Durst's trial began deliberations Tuesday afternoon to decide the fate of the wealthy New York real estate scion charged with murdering his best friend Susan Berman, 55, two decades ago.
Berman’s body was discovered in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000, having been shot in the head execution style, after police received a note alerting them to a dead body at her address. For over a decade, Durst, 78, denied writing the note, but during the trial he finally admitted to being its author. Durst claims he was afraid of getting involved after finding the body, so he mailed the note to police anonymously.
According to Durst, he and Berman had planned a “staycation” in Los Angeles around the time she was murdered and intended to visit various tourist hotspots. Durst said he arrived at Berman’s home as planned, but no one answered the door so he eventually let himself in with a key previously given to him by Berman. That’s when he found her body lying on the floor and noticed blood leaking from her head, he claims.
Much of the testimony in Durst's five-month trial has revolved around allegations that he murdered his first wife Kathie, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1982. Authorities never charged Durst in Kathie’s disappearance, despite rampant finger-pointing over the years, and he has always maintained his innocence.
The prosecution also delved deeply into the 2001 death of Morris Black, 71, Durst’s neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Durst admitted to dismembering Black’s body, placing the pieces inside garbage bags and dumping them into Galveston Bay, apparently unaware of tides or buoyancy. Limbs and a torso washed onto the picturesque shores of Galveston (Black’s head was never recovered) and police on the scene discovered Durst’s address, along with other pieces of personally identifying information, written on scraps of paper found inside the garbage bags. Durst has long maintained that Black was accidently shot during a struggle after Black pulled a gun on Durst in his own home.
Prosecutors in the case claim Durst executed Berman because she provided him with an alibi for the disappearance of his first wife. According to their version of the events, Berman impersonated Kathie on a call to the medical school she attended, pretending to be sick, at Durst’s behest. John Lewin, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County and the lead prosecutor in the case, has tried to convince the jury that Berman fell on hard times back in 2000 and was blackmailing Durst by threatening to speak with investigators, which Durst’s attorneys claimed to be a fiction.
“The prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kathie did not make the call and failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Susan Berman made the call,” said Dick DeGeurin, one of Durst’s attorneys. “That’s what they’ve set up as their standard. That’s what they say they have to prove. Because, if Kathie made the call, if Susan Berman didn’t make the call, then Susan Berman didn’t have anything to blackmail Bob about.”
Durst’s legal team, helmed by high-profile criminal lawyers DeGuerin and David Chesnoff, called the blackmail allegation “absurd,” pointing to multiple canceled checks sent to Berman by Durst before he became aware of the renewed investigation into Kathie’s disappearance. Durst’s lawyers have tried to portray him as a “sick old man” who wanted to help his friends but ran into a string of unfathomably bad luck.
Durst, who suffers from bladder and esophageal cancers, has been seated in a wheelchair throughout the trial, and until early September was seen hooked to a catheter hanging from his wheelchair. “I’m not trying to get sympathy for Bob, at all, but it is a fact that he has serious medical conditions,” DeGuerin said during his closing argument. “You can see it. I’ve been concerned that he would last through this trial.”
Lewin also alleges that Durst physically and emotionally abused Kathie for years while they were married, which Durst’s lawyers conceded was “atrocious” behavior. But DeGuerin and Chesnoff contended that while domestic violence is never acceptable, not every abusive husband goes on to murder their spouse.
Throughout the trial Durst’s lawyers have tried to paint Kathie as unreliable and addled by cocaine addiction, putting forth the theory that she may have run off with another man or perhaps even a drug dealer. They said New York City was a dangerous place in the 1980s when Kathie disappeared, particularly in circles where cocaine was being used, and that none of the clues point back to their client.
During his closing argument DeGuerin said the prosecution only brought up Kathie’s alleged mistreatment and disappearance, along with Black’s killing, to prejudice the jury and elicit hate toward Durst, to which Lewin vehemently objected. A heated exchange followed immediately after the jury was dismissed, with Lewin yelling at both DeGuerin and Judge Mark Windham over what he called “per se misconduct” on DeGuerin’s part.
“This man killed his wife, this man. I don’t care that he’s old, I don’t care that he’s sitting in a wheelchair, I don’t care that he’s sick. It’s irrelevant. He has killed three people in this case. Three people. It is time that he is held accountable,” Lewin concluded at the end of his closing argument. “I’m telling you this man murdered Susan Berman.”
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