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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Witness in Durst Murder Trial Recants Testimony

Under cross-examination Thursday, a witness who testified on Wednesday that Robert Durst was in Los Angeles at or about the time he allegedly murdered his friend Susan Berman withdrew that statement and said she wasn’t sure.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Under cross-examination Thursday, a witness who testified on Wednesday that Robert Durst was in Los Angeles at or about the time he allegedly murdered his friend Susan Berman withdrew that statement and said she wasn’t sure.

Emily Altman, a longtime friend of Durst, said Wednesday that Durst had told her he was in Beverly Hills in December 2000 — about the time the New York real estate scion is accused of killing Berman just a few miles away.

Investigators found travel records placing Durst in San Francisco several days before and after Berman’s death, but no publicly known evidence had put him in Los Angeles then.

Back on the stand Thursday, Altman testified that she had mulled over her Wednesday in her hotel room and decided she wasn’t sure.

“Do you know whether Bob was in Los Angeles in December?” Houston trial lawyer Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s lead attorney, asked her.

“No, I don’t,” she replied.

Also contradicting what she had said Wednesday, Altman agreed with DeGuerin that she might have learned about Durst’s being in Los Angeles not in December 2000, but in 2001 or even 2007. And she might not have heard it from Durst, she said, but from her husband, Stewart Altman, an old high school chum of the accused murderer who has been Durst’s personal attorney since about 1995.

“What you said yesterday about Bob being in Los Angeles, did you hear that from Bob?” DeGuerin asked.

“I honestly can’t tell you whether I heard it from Bob or from Stewart. I wish I could,” she replied. “I really wish I could remember, but over the course of years, everything gets jumbled.”

Los Angeles prosecutors have charged the 74-year-old Durst with the first-degree murder of Berman in her Benedict Canyon home on Dec. 24, 2000. They say he shot her to keep her from revealing to New York state detectives that Durst had killed his first wife, Kathleen Durst, who has not been seen since early 1982.

Altman, 68, is one of several witnesses 65 or older who have been testifying over the past several months to preserve their testimony in case they die or become unavailable before Durst goes on trial for Berman’s murder sometime next year.

Like Altman’s memory, her third day of testimony before Superior Court Judge Mark Windham on Thursday was something of a jumble.

An overriding issue during her time on the stand is whether much of what she knows about the case comes from her husband’s legal representation of Durst, making it attorney-client communication that should be kept out of court. Emily Altman is Stewart Altman’s legal secretary and sole employee.

Windham has ruled that phone conversations Emily Altman had with Durst while he was in various jails around the country are not privileged, nor are materials Durst instructed her to give to the media, including the producers of the six-part HBO documentary series on Durst called “The Jinx.”

Altman brought her own counsel with her to court to advise her on the attorney-client privilege issue. Several times Wednesday and Thursday, Marilyn Bednarski and David S. McLane, of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt in Pasadena, said they would instruct her not to answer a question from the lead prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin.

Although the issue of her not answering a question never really came to a head, Bednarski said her firm will ask California’s Second District Court of Appeal to issue a writ of mandate ordering Windham to change his rulings on privilege. Bednarski said an appellate opinion also would be helpful when Stewart Altman is brought out to testify in late August.

In addition to the privilege problem, Lewin spent much of the day battling Altman’s poor memory, DeGuerin’s and McLane’s objections and Windham’s mild critiques of his questions and objections.

Several times early in the day, Lewin abandoned topics he had been trying to ask Altman about. “It’s not worth it,” he said when McLane objected to his asking whether Durst purposely tried to look frail for the jury while on trial for a Texas murder in 2003.

Durst was acquitted on self-defense grounds of the 2001 killing of a neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, although he admitted dismembering and dumping Black’s body.

Judge Windham halted Lewin’s questioning of Altman shortly after lunch Thursday, to allow DeGuerin to start his cross-examination.

Lewin then vigorously objected to DeGuerin’s first several questions, each time on multiple grounds. After a sidebar conference, he largely stopped.

He did score a victory Thursday by getting into evidence a strange, almost-confessional 33-page chronology of events Durst produced for his attorneys before the Galveston trial. Known as the “BD Story,” for Durst’s initials, it was included in a box of papers Durst had Emily Altman give to the producers of “The Jinx.”

The day produced a few weird and humorous moments, such as when DeGuerin asked Altman about the $45,000 Lexus Durst had given her and her husband, about which Lewin had questioned her.

“Was it the cheapest Lexus?” DeGuerin asked.

That prompted Lewin to wonder aloud if Lexus makes a cheap model.

“I have one,” the judge replied.

At another point, while several attorneys were objecting and talking quickly, someone’s smart phone announced: “I didn’t understand that,” causing the entire courtroom to burst into laughter.

Altman mentioned several times on the stand Wednesday and Thursday that she feels Lewin is harassing and bullying her.

Windham ordered her to return from New York to California on Sunday so she can resume her testimony on Monday.

(Photo shows Robert Durst in court at a February hearing.)

Categories / Criminal, Trials

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