Witness’s Friendship With Attorney Complicates Durst Murder Trial

In this Dec. 21, 2016, file photo, real estate heir Robert Durst is brought into a courtroom in a wheelchair for a hearing in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The government attorney prosecuting Robert Durst for murder tried for hours Tuesday to shake a longtime friend’s support for the multimillionaire real estate heir, while sparring with other attorneys and the judge over complicated privilege issues.

Emily Altman acknowledged to Deputy District Attorney John Lewin that Durst cheated on his first wife, Kathleen Durst, before her disappearance and presumed death in early 1982. She agreed with Lewin that Durst had a cutting sense of humor and difficulty showing emotion and that he lied sometimes.

But Altman said she never saw Durst be emotionally or physically abusive to Kathleen. And she seemed to stand by her choice made years ago for Durst to be her son’s godfather, even knowing that he later admitted dismembering a neighbor fatally shot during a struggle in Galveston, Texas.

Asked about that incident, Altman said: “I didn’t understand it.”

At another point, Lewin brought Altman to tears when he asked if she wanted Durst acquitted of killing his close friend Susan Berman, the murder he will be tried for next year.

“I hope he didn’t do it,” she said. “If he’s proven to have done what you’re accusing him of, then he should be found guilty. … I don’t want to believe he committed the murder in this case.”

Kathleen Durst, a medical student, was last seen alive on Jan. 31 or Feb. 1, 1982.

Though long suspected of killing her, Robert Durst is charged now with murdering Berman in her Benedict Canyon home on Christmas Eve 2000. Prosecutors say Durst killed Berman to keep her quiet about Kathleen Durst’s death.

After Berman’s murder, Durst became a fugitive, living disguised as a mute woman in a cheap Galveston apartment, where he befriended a neighbor, Morris Black.

When pieces of Black’s body floated to the surface of Galveston Bay in September 2001, Durst was charged with his murder. He was acquitted on grounds of self-defense, despite having admitted cutting up and disposing of the body.

Emily Altman’s husband, Stewart Altman, has long been one of Durst’s attorneys. She has been her husband’s legal secretary and sole employee, she told the court.

During her testimony Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Mark Windham, Lewin tried to demonstrate that she could not be “a neutral, unbiased witness,” as he put it in his first question to her.

“I’m just trying to get at that you have an affinity and a love for Bob Durst that supersedes anything he might do,” he said.

Although Durst is not expected to go to trial until next year, Windham is allowing Lewin to hold conditional examinations of the many elderly potential witnesses to preserve their testimony.

Altman said she has known Durst for 45 years and considers him a very close friend. Her husband has known him for 60 years, since they were in high school together, she said.

Durst’s defense team argues that the Altmans have a professional relationship with their client that puts most of their communications with him under the shield of attorney-client privilege. Emily Altman had separate counsel with her in court for help on that issue.

Lewin argued repeatedly that the Altmans’ connection with Durst went far beyond an attorney-client relationship. He noted that Durst gave the couple a $45,000 Lexus and took them on a vacation to Puerto Rico a few years ago.

“Did other clients give you cars or trips to Puerto Rico?” he asked.

“Ninety-nine percent of Stewart’s clients don’t have the resources that Mr. Durst has,” she said.

“My relationship with Bob is kind of intertwined,” Altman testified. “When he isn’t in legal trouble, he’s more of a friend.”

But other times, such when he was in custody in Pennsylvania, New Orleans or Galveston, he was a client, she said. When they spoke on the phone, she was communicating with him as his attorney’s assistant.

Stewart Altman was “a counselor, a trusted adviser,” she said, and when Durst was in custody, her task often was “to get him to focus on what Stewart needed to tell him.”

Lewin spent much of the day sparring with Durst’s defense team and Altman’s attorneys about what he could and could not ask her and what was or was not protected by attorney-client privilege.

When he asked whether she’d ever told Durst that she missed him, four attorneys stood to object. Judge Windham listened to them one at a time.

Windham later said the issue of whether privilege protects communications with a legal secretary who is also a close friend is very complex.

“It’s a very good issue. I’m not certain about it,” he said.

Altman was to continue her testimony Wednesday. Two other witnesses are expected to take the stand Thursday.

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