LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a final day of intense questioning and shaky memories, the wife of one of Robert Durst’s attorneys acknowledged on the stand Monday that her husband prompted her to modify her previous testimony that Durst had said he was in Los Angeles around the time he is accused of murdering his closest friend here.
Emily Altman had testified last Wednesday that Durst had told her he was at the Beverly Hilton hotel in December 2000 near where Susan Berman, his confidant and sometime spokesperson, died in her Benedict Canyon home. Altman’s testimony for the first time put the eccentric New York real estate heir in Los Angeles at about the time of Berman’s murder.
Prosecutors say Durst shot Berman to keep her from telling investigators he had killed his young wife Kathleen in 1982. Kathleen Durst disappeared that January and has never been found.
But during questioning Thursday by Durst’s lead defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin of Houston, Altman backed off that statement, saying she couldn’t remember where or when she’d heard about Durst’s Beverly Hills visit. She said she may have learned it in 2001 or later, rather than December 2000, and she may have learned it from the media or her husband, Stewart Altman.
Stewart Altman is a lifelong friend of Durst who has been his personal attorney off and on in many matters since about 1995, according to testimony. Emily Altman is her husband’s legal secretary.
Pressed about her shifting testimony by Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, Altman said Monday she had reconsidered her statement in her hotel that evening and decided she wasn’t sure.
“When I had time to think about it, I didn’t remember whether it was Bob Durst or someone else,” she told Lewin.
Lewin countered that the real reason she changed her mind from Wednesday to Thursday was that she realized an admission from Durst about being in Los Angeles would be very damaging to her close friend’s defense. She denied that was why.
She said that on Thursday morning, before she took the stand again, she raised the issue in a phone call with her husband.
“Is that when the idea came up” to recant, Lewin asked Monday.
“It wasn’t an idea. He told me I was wrong,” Altman said.
She repeated that statement later in her testimony. “I told him what I’d said, and he said he remembered it differently,” that it was he who told her about Durst having been in L.A., she said.
In between came a very lengthy discussion among Lewin, Durst’s three defense attorneys, Altman’s separate attorney and Superior Court Judge Mark Windham, about whether Altman was precluded from testifying about her conversation with her husband by marital privilege or by attorney-client privilege.
Windham repeated his previous ruling that Durst had waived attorney-client privilege for his conversations with Emily Altman, which were driven more by friendship than legal representation. He said he could not find any legal authority applying the marital communication privilege in the unusual situation of a husband and wife discussing their testimony in a case where they are both witnesses.
At one point, the Altmans’ own attorney, David S. McLane of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt in Pasadena, said he would instruct Emily Altman not to answer a question about her conversation with her husband. He relented on the promise that her answers would be struck from the record if the state Court of Appeal overturns Windham’s privilege rulings.
Emily Altman, 68, is one of several older witnesses the judge has allowed Lewin to question in conditional examinations, to preserve their testimony in case they die or become unavailable before Durst’s 2018 trial.
Of the witnesses who’ve come from New York to Los Angeles so far, Altman spent the most time — a little more than four days — on the stand under intense questioning from the prosecutor.
She has repeatedly said she does not remember this or that point — 89 times to Lewin and 13 times to DeGuerin, the district attorney told the court. He has repeatedly accused her of lying, even comparing her to Pinocchio.
In fact, Lewin’s first question to her Monday was whether she knew that she might be charged with perjury if she intentionally said she didn’t remember some material information she actually did remember.
Altman and Durst’s defense team, in turn, have accused Lewin of bullying and harassing her, and she has broken into tears at times. “It’s very difficult to remember everything when you throw questions at me,” she said.
And some of Lewin’s questions were challenging.
At one point, she denied that Durst had ever told her he’d seen Kathleen Durst die in an accident. Lewin asked the question again, and Altman answered, “I don’t think so, no.”
Lewin then demanded that she acknowledge that “no” and “I don’t think so” do not mean the same thing. She kept repeating the answer and saying, “I said no” about his original question.
After several minutes back and forth, Windham said what Lewin was doing “feels like browbeating.”
“She doesn’t want to answer,” Lewin responded, and moved on.
Stewart Altman and two friends of Berman from Southern California are scheduled to testify beginning Aug. 28. A preliminary hearing in the murder case is set for Oct. 17.
(Photo shows Robert Durst at a February court hearing.)