LOS ANGELES (CN) — The prosecutors who have charged New York real estate scion Robert Durst in the murder of his close friend want to bring an unnamed witness to testify well before any trial, they told a judge Wednesday.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told Judge Mark Windham that the prosecution wants to conduct a “conditional examination” of the witness in February to preserve his or her testimony in case the witness might die or disappear. They also want to question an elderly doctor, Alvin Kuperman, who may have been one of the last people to speak to Durst’s wife Kathie before she vanished in 1982.
In a hearing devoted to procedural issues, the judge also agreed to appoint a special master to pore over some 50 boxes of papers connected to the case in order to flag any items protected by attorney-client privilege.
Prosecutors have charged Durst in the execution-style murder of his companion Susan Berman in 2000, supposedly she knew of his involvement in the death of his wife.
Durst pleaded not guilty last month.
The long history and bizarre facts have made Durst’s prosecution one of the most closely watched Los Angeles murder cases in decades. Allegations include that after killing his wife, the multimillionaire Durst traveled disguised as a mute woman and then went into hiding for years in Galveston, Texas.
According to Los Angeles prosecutors, when a Texas neighbor, Morris Black, threatened to expose him, Durst murdered and dismembered the man in 2001. A Houston jury acquitted Durst of the crime in 2003, accepting his argument that he accidentally shot Black in self-defense and tried to hide the body in a panic.
After Los Angeles prosecutors filed the murder charge in March 2015, the FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans where he was staying under an assumed name. Found with a gun and marijuana, he was convicted of possession and firearms charges and sentenced to seven years and one month in prison.
The tangled tale inspired the 2010 movie “All Good Things.” The director, Andrew Jarecki, then interviewed Durst for a six-part HBO documentary on the case called “The Jinx.”
At the end of the last episode of the documentary, Durst was confronted with evidence connecting him to Berman’s death. Then, off camera but with a microphone on, he is heard apparently confessing: “There it is. You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
The episode aired the night after his New Orleans arrest.
Although he was played by Ryan Gosling in the feature film, the 73-year-old Durst was brought to court Wednesday in a wheelchair with a large scar on his scalp presumably from old surgery. A cancer survivor suffering from several other ailments, he has said he has only five years to live.
Lead prosecutor Lewin hinted during the 90-minute hearing that his team want to collect advance testimony from certain witnesses in part because of their suspicions about the reasons for Berman’s and Black’s killings.
The testimony, which will be videotaped and subject to cross-examination in front the judge, would only be used during a trial or preliminary hearing if a witness had gone missing or died, he said. One witness to be questioned early, Dr. Kuperman, turns 86 next month.
As to the unnamed witness, Lewin said Durst is worth close to $100 million and is accused of murdering one witness and has admitted being involved in the death of another. “Witnesses in this case realistically, understandably are concerned about their safety,” he said.
Lewin said he will identify the anonymous witness two weeks ahead of the examination to allow the defense time to prepare. He asked to hold the conditional examination on Feb. 7.
One of Durst’s attorneys, David Z. Chesnoff of Las Vegas, argued that would not give the defense enough time to go through boxes of evidence. Although on Wednesday Lewin asked for conditional examinations of just two witnesses, Chesnoff said the prosecution eventually wants to collect early testimony from eight or 10.
While appearing frustrated with the procedural demands of the case, Windham agreed to set an additional hearing on Jan. 6 for the defense to present written objections to the Feb. 7 date.
“So we’ll have another day in our court,” he said.
He also told the attorneys to try to set hearings and motions on Fridays when the court is not presiding over trials. “Can I start steering you to Fridays? We’re actually a trial court,” he said.
Windham’s frustration also came out at one point while the attorneys were arguing about appointing the special master.
Although the question concerned whether an outside expert was needed to look for documents protected by attorney-client privilege, Lewin and Durst’s lead attorney, famed Texas criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, argued repeatedly about whether Durst had waived the privilege.
Lewin said Durst abandoned any protection for many of the documents by handing them over to the filmmakers during production of the “The Jinx.” That action gave prosecutors the right to go through many of the documents, he said.
DeGuerin argued that the issue Windham had to decide was whether the prosecution was lawfully in possession of the boxes of documents in the first place.
At one point, the judge told Lewin the question of waiver was not relevant yet. Stopping him from going on, Windham complained, “We’re hearing an argument about your argument.”
In announcing his ruling to appoint the special master, the judge pointedly declined prosecutors’ request to find Durst had waived his attorney-client privilege over the evidence from the filmmakers.