LOS ANGELES (CN) — The long-awaited trial of New York real estate heir Robert Durst was put on hold Sunday for at least three weeks because of concerns throughout the court system about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham ordered the trial adjourned until April 6.
The announcement came five years to the day after Durst was arrested while in hiding in New Orleans under an assumed name. He is charged with killing Susan Berman just before Christmas 2000 in her Beverly Hills-area cottage.
Now 76 and frail, Durst in recent years has suffered through cancer and several surgeries, according his attorneys.
Prosecutors say that 20 years ago Durst killed Berman out of fear she would give investigators information linking him to the disappearance and presumed murder of his first wife in early 1982. Kathie Durst’s body has never been found.
His trial began on March 4 with opening statements before a jam-packed courtroom and with some reporters shunted to an overflow court upstairs. Windham’s courtroom gallery seats only about 45 people, and the prosecution and defense teams each usually have up to 10 lawyers, paralegals and investigators.
Initially in response to virus concerns, Windham had planned only to require some “social distancing” in his courtroom. In an order announced Friday afternoon, he said jurors, lawyers and spectators would have to sit in alternate seats and leave empty seats in between. That would have pushed some of the 12 jurors and 11 alternates into the gallery, so Windham also restricted the number of lawyers, journalists and members of the public who would be admitted.
On Sunday, however, Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile announced that all new civil and criminal trials in the Los Angeles court system would be delayed for at least 30 days. For trials already under way, those judges could decide individually whether to delay the trial or declare a mistrial, according to the announcement.
Brazile also said the court would not bring in any new potential jurors for 30 days. He encouraged judges to reduce courtroom traffic and to allow attorneys and litigants to attend hearings by telephone.
He said the Superior Court, which is the largest court system in the nation, has expanded custodial cleaning and made hand sanitizers available throughout its 38 courthouses.
In the Durst trial, after four days of opening statements, jurors have heard testimony from nine witnesses, of about 120 planned by the prosecution. The witnesses who had been planned for Monday included two friends of Kathie Durst, who were to buttress allegations that Robert Durst was physically abusive to his young wife, and a forensic specialist who was to say the gun that shot Berman was no more than an inch from the back of her head when it was fired.
The trial was expected to last about five months.