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Robert Durst sentenced to life without parole in 2000 murder of friend

Even as the real estate scion faces a life behind bars in California, a grand jury in New York has begun looking at evidence in the 1982 disappearance of Durst's wife.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — After decades of ducking law enforcement over a string of disappearances and killings of those nearest to him, Robert Durst will now likely spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering his friend Susan Berman in her Beverly Hills home in 2000.

Berman’s case marks the third time Durst has been accused in the murder or disappearance of someone in his immediate circle — but the first time a jury has truly held him to account. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham cited the “overwhelming evidence of guilt” in the case in sentencing Durst to life in prison without the possibility of parole Thursday.

Durst, heir to a wealthy family of New York real estate developers, suffers from bladder cancer and appeared frail in his wheelchair throughout most of the trial. Berman’s family was allowed time to make personal statements to the court after the sentencing, during which the 78-year-old was breathing heavily, prompting concern by his lawyers.

“What would my life had been if Robert Durst hadn’t murdered my mother?” asked Sareb Kaufman, Berman’s godson. “It has been a daily soul-consuming and crushing experience. Since my mother’s murder there has not been one day that I’ve not lived with this as the center of my every thought, feeling, choice or breath I take. I have not had one day off in almost 21 years from the absolute destruction, grief or pain that this has caused me.”

A Texas jury previously acquitted Durst in the murder of his neighbor, Morris Black, whom Durst admitted to dismembering with a bow saw and dumping in Galveston Bay in 2001, less than a year after Berman’s death. Durst was on the run from authorities at the time and arrived in Texas disguised as a mute woman, but Black soon caught on to the ruse and prosecutors claim Durst killed the man to avoid further scrutiny.

According to Durst, Black was accidently shot during a struggle after pulling a gun on Durst in his own home. Durst was acquitted of murder in that case, but a Texas court sentenced him to five years for tampering with evidence and bail jumping.

Durst's luck ran out this time around, and he was given the California mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole after being found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances involving lying in wait and witness killing. Windham called Berman’s death an “awful, disturbing crime.”

Prosecutors in the case, led by LA County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, successfully convinced jurors that Durst executed Berman because she provided him with an alibi for his first wife Kathie’s disappearance nearly 20 years before Berman’s own murder.

Lewin argued Berman had impersonated Kathie on a phone call to the medical school she attended, pretending to be sick, at Durst’s behest. Lewin told jurors Berman later fell on hard times financially and began blackmailing Durst, threatening to tell investigators what she knew — leading him to shoot her in the back of the head execution-style in her home.

Kathie Durst, Robert Durst’s first wife who disappeared near New York in 1982, was his original victim, Lewin said, and the impetus for the two murders that followed. Lewin argued the couple had serious marital problems and Kathie was working Durst for a divorce settlement, prompting him to kill her. Durst then asked his close friend Berman to provide him with an alibi, eventually leading to her own murder 20 years later. Within a year of killing Berman, Durst was on the run in east Texas, and when Morris Black caught wind of what he had done and tried to use the information to his advantage, he too had to be dealt with.

The defense claimed this was all an unfortunate series of coincidences. But the jury didn’t buy it and convicted Durst on all counts in September. Durst has never been charged with Kathie’s disappearance, but the district attorney in Westchester County, New York, recently impaneled a grand jury to hear evidence regarding Kathie’s 1982 disappearance, so new charges could be on the way.

Berman’s family members have repeatedly called on Durst to tell the McCormack family where he buried Kathie’s body so they can have some measure of closure. Durst has so far refused to acknowledge any involvement in her disappearance.

“You have murdered the only people you have ever inspired to love you,” Lewin said directly to Durst at Thursday's sentencing hearing. “Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting them know where to find Kathie.”

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Categories / Criminal, Trials

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