Robert Durst beat the odds for 40 years – now facing his final murder trial | Robert durst

Robert Durst has been beating the odds for almost 40 years – evading scrutiny for the disappearance of his first wife, years without investigation for the cold-blooded murder of a best friend and, more surprisingly, acquittal during the ‘a Texas murder trial in which he admitted to shooting the victim and dismembering the body with a bow saw and paring knife.

But time and luck may be running out for the famous black sheep of a large New York real estate family.

Durst, now 78 years old and serving a long prison sentence, faces a final murder trial where the evidence of his guilt is not only convincing, but has grown stronger since his dramatic cat and mouse arrest in a New Orleans hotel six years ago.

That trial, for the 2000 murder of her friend and confidante Susan Berman, resumed in Los Angeles this week after an unexpected 14-month hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. No one dares to call it a slam dunk – that’s the phrase the Texas prosecutor used in the 2003 murder trial where Durst was released.

But the alibi Durst maintained for years – that he was hundreds of miles away when Berman was murdered – has collapsed. He also admitted to writing an anonymous letter alerting police to the corpse at Berman’s home – a letter which, while Durst still stuck to his alibi, he admitted could only have been written by the killer.

An old friend of Durst and Berman, former publicity manager Nick Chavin, will probably be the prosecution’s most powerful witness. Chavin says Durst confessed to him about Berman’s murder in 2014. Chavin’s testimony is already on tape – taken before the trial because prosecutors feared what might happen to him if they waited. “It sounds ridiculous,” Chavin said in 2017, “but yeah, it was my best friend who killed my other best friend.”

John Lewin, the assistant district attorney, makes opening arguments in the Robert Durst murder trial in 2020.
John Lewin, the assistant district attorney, makes opening arguments in the Robert Durst murder trial in 2020. Photograph: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Durst and his charismatic and expensive lawyer Dick DeGuerin hope to drill enough holes in the evidence to establish a reasonable doubt, as they did in Texas 18 years ago. Yes, Durst was at Berman’s Benedict Canyon home in the hills above Los Angeles, DeGuerin said in his opening speech Wednesday. Yes, Durst wrote the note informing the police. But he didn’t kill Berman.

Durst simply discovered the body after being shot, execution-style, in the back of the head, DeGuerin told the jury, then panicked. “Bob Durst didn’t kill Susan Berman and he doesn’t know who did,” DeGuerin said.

In DeGuerin’s tale, Durst was a clumsy, if not awkward innocent, around whom chaos inexplicably erupted from time to time. Because he had autistic tendencies (a claim the lawsuit disputes), he did not communicate normally with others. And because he tended to panic, he did things, like hack a body after killing a man in self-defense, that might seem strange to others.

“He doesn’t make good decisions,” DeGuerin conceded.

Above all, DeGuerin insisted, the evidence against Durst cannot be trusted. The Jinx, HBO’s sensational documentary on Durst that aired in 2015 and triggered his arrest, was a long piece of dishonest journalism, DeGuerin said. And Chavin, who admitted to lying to investigators for seven months before deciding to turn on his friend, is not a reliable witness.

‘It all starts with Kathie’

The prosecution argues that it’s crucial to understand the full context of Durst’s story, and that includes the disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathie, in 1982.

“It all starts with the disappearance and death of Kathie Durst at the hands of Mr. Durst,” said John Lewin, the assistant district attorney, in his own opening statement.

Durst was never officially suspected in this case, in part because Kathie’s body was never found. She was not officially declared dead until 2017.

Kathie and Robert Durst.
Kathie and Robert Durst. Photography: Rex Features

But according to the prosecutor, Berman helped blur the timing of Kathie’s disappearance by posing as her during a phone call to the dean of the medical school where Kathie was a student.

When Kathie’s friends pressured the local district attorney’s office to reopen the case in 2000, prosecutors allege Durst assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that he was doing under criminal investigation and that Berman was about to be questioned by the Los Angeles. police.

In no time, he arranged a shallow wedding with his then-girlfriend Debrah Lee Charatan and rented a room in Galveston, Texas. “It was a marriage of convenience,” Durst later told his sister in a taped phone conversation while in police custody. “I had to ask Debrah to write my checks. I was preparing to be a fugitive.

Before going to Texas, he flew to California and, as he has now admitted, drove several hundred miles to visit Berman in Los Angeles before returning north to the airport. of San Francisco.

Chavin, in his testimony, said that for Durst: “It was her or me. I had no choice. “

Once in Texas, Durst masquerades as a mute woman, calling herself Dorothy Ciner. According to prosecutors, her roommate, Morris Black, saw through the disguise and asked so many questions that he ended up being shot and dismembered.

The Jinx and the trial

According to Durst and his legal team, Black and Durst fought over a gun and Durst killed Black in self-defense.

As for Berman, DeGuerin said, Durst “had no motive and nothing to gain” by killing her.

Much has changed for Durst since his previous trial, when he was less well known than now, and DeGuerin was able to argue that the suspicions swirling around him were damaging and should be kept out of the trial.

Durst’s fortunes changed dramatically, in fact, after agreeing to sit down for dozens of hours of interviews for The Jinx. Thanks to Berman’s stepson, the filmmakers found a letter from Durst to Berman using the same capital letters and misspelling of the “Beverly” in “Beverly Hills” as the anonymous note written to police after his murder. They also overheard Durst on a hot mic saying, “What have I done? I killed them all, of course.

As the six-part show reached its climax, police tracked Durst from a Houston home to New Orleans and arrested him at a hotel where he had checked in under a pseudonym. He was charged and convicted of firearms and remained behind bars while awaiting trial in Los Angeles for the murder of Berman.

DeGuerin was scathing about The Jinx in his opening statement, reveling in the fact that three seemingly overwhelming sentences spoken by Durst in the last episode were edited together in an attempt to sound more powerful than they were.

Still, the show provides a wealth of material on disk that is likely to be used against Durst as the lawsuit unfolds. The publicity surrounding the show also prompted investigators to dust off their old notebooks and allowed Lewin and his team in Los Angeles to examine old evidence and establish new avenues for investigation.

Getting Chavin to turn on his friend was perhaps their biggest move. Durst’s admission in 2019 that he wrote the letter to the police (consisting of Berman’s address and the single capital word ‘CADAVER’) was another major victory.

In court this week, Durst put on a sad face – sitting in a wheelchair in a shabby suit and following the proceedings through the court clerk’s notes on an electronic tablet due to hearing problems. According to his lawyers, he has bladder cancer and is barely fit to stand trial.

But Durst has also indicated that he intends to testify in his own defense – a highly unusual move that defense lawyers rarely recommend. In a case expected to last for weeks, if not months, it’s unclear when that testimony might come, but Lewin, the prosecutor, appears to be anxiously awaiting it.

“Get your popcorn, your candy and a lounge chair,” he told the jury. “It’s going to take a while.”

About Mary Moser

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