LOS ANGELES (CN) — The jury in Robert Durst’s murder trial found the wealthy real estate heir guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his friend Susan Berman. Berman’s body was discovered in her Los Angeles home in 2000 with a gunshot wound to the back of her head.
Attorneys for the defendant objected to the reading of the verdict because Durst wasn’t in the courtroom at the time. Durst was recently exposed to Covid-19 in jail and the 78-year-old was awaiting test results to determine whether he had indeed contracted the virus.
Nevertheless, Judge Mark Windham pressed on, citing precedent from a previous case involving a defendant who was in intensive care at the time a verdict was reached.
“In the interest of justice, I will take the verdict under 1148; it’s clear we specified that I may under these circumstances,” Windham said.
After a five-month trial, the twelve jurors in Durst’s case deliberated for a total of seven-and-a-half hours over the course of four days before reaching their verdict. They unanimously found Durst guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances, including lying-in-wait, where a killer ambushes their victim, as well as for killing a witness to a crime and using a firearm to commit the act.
Berman is believed to have had knowledge that Durst killed his first wife Kathie in 1982, thus the special circumstance for witness killing. Prosecutors in the case, led by John Lewin, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County and the lead prosecutor in the case, successfully convinced jurors that Durst executed Berman because she provided him with an alibi for Kathie’s disappearance nearly 20 years before Berman’s own murder.
According to Lewin, Berman impersonated Kathie on a phone call to the medical school she attended, pretending to be sick, at Durst’s behest. Lewin said Berman later fell on hard times financially and began to blackmail Durst, sealing her grisly fate.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the defendant said that entire account is a fiction dreamed up to put their elderly and infirm client behind bars, but the jury wasn’t having it.
“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.”
“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,” Lewin responded at the end of his closing argument. “It is time that he is held accountable.”
The other two alleged victims referenced by Lewin are Durst’s first wife Kathie, who disappeared after Durst supposedly put her on a train to New York, as well the 2001 death of Morris Black, Durst’s former neighbor in Texas. Durst has never been tried for his first wife’s disappearance, despite a long-running investigation at the time, and he was acquitted on charges of murdering Black.
At the time Black was killed, Durst had been hiding out in Galveston while disguised as a mute woman to avoid New York prosecutor Jeanine Pirro, who had made it her mission to take down the eccentric real estate scion. Durst moved into a small apartment next to Black’s and the two quickly became friends, going out to shoot guns and watching TV together in Durst’s apartment.
One day Durst returned home from a run and found Black sitting there with a loaded pistol on the table in front of him, or so he says. A struggle ensued, the two men tumbled to the floor and one way or another, Black was shot dead. Already on the run and afraid for his freedom, Durst gruesomely dismembered Black’s body with an axe and a saw and placed the pieces into black trash bags, which he dumped into Galveston Bay. Those bags quickly washed back to shore, and inside them were scraps of paper pointing directly back at Durst, leading to his subsequent arrest in that case.
Back in Los Angeles, Judge Windham congratulated the attorneys for both sides on “the most extraordinary trial I have ever had, ever seen or even heard about,” while acknowledging the defense’s natural disappointment in the verdict. Windham has scheduled Durst’s sentencing hearing for the morning of Oct. 18.
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