A jury began deliberating Tuesday whether to convict Robert Durst of murdering his best friend, a killing that the prosecution argued was committed to cover up an earlier crime to which his friend was a witness: the death of Durst’s wife, who vanished nearly four decades ago and has never been found.
The jury’s verdict would bring to a close a nearly five-month trial and settle many of the suspicions that have shadowed Durst, 78, heir to an enormous fortune derived from his family’s Manhattan real estate portfolio, for more than half of his life.
Durst’s wife, Kathie, disappeared in 1982. His best friend, Susan Berman, was found dead in her home in 2000, shot once in the back of the head. In 2001 the police found, washed ashore on Galveston Bay in Texas, pieces of Durst’s next-door neighbor, Morris Black, whom Durst has admitted dismembering after Black was killed in what Durst described as a struggle over a gun.
For the past five months, Los Angeles County prosecutors have made the case that Durst subjected his wife to emotional and physical abuse before killing her in 1982. After her death, Berman impersonated Kathie Durst in a call to the medical school that she was attending, telling a dean she was too ill to go to class, according to the prosecution’s theory.
Two decades later, when authorities revived the investigation into his wife’s disappearance, Durst “decided, you know what, that’s a loose end I’ve got to tie up,” Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin argued to the jury Tuesday.
Durst is charged with murdering Berman, 55, in her Benedict Canyon home. He also faces special circumstance allegations of killing a witness and lying in wait.
Durst’s lawyers, Dick DeGuerin and David Chesnoff, argued last week and Monday that the premise on which the prosecution’s case rests — that Durst killed his wife — wasn’t supported by the months of testimony and other evidence shown to the jury.
Berman, Chesnoff said, was “a witness to nothing.”
Robert Durst’s defense attorneys, Dick DeGuerin, left, and David Chesnoff, listen as the prosecution begins closing arguments.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The prosecution, Chesnoff said, has asked the jury to elide the gaps in its case, to “make leaps and inferences” and piece together the disjointed fragments of aging memories and gory photographs to arrive at a guilty verdict.
“It’s just, ‘Throw it against the wall, and something will stick,’” he said. “But that doesn’t count in a trial, not in California, not in the United States of America.”
DeGuerin acknowledged that Durst’s treatment of his wife, whom he physically and emotionally abused, was “atrocious.” DeGuerin also conceded that Durst was made to look “really bad” on the witness stand, from which he was cross-examined for nine days.
It was clear from Durst’s testimony, his lawyer said, that his “compass don’t point north. He’s unusual.”
But dislike, even hatred for him, or the impression that he lied on the witness stand, “doesn’t substitute for evidence … that he killed Susan Berman,” DeGuerin said.
Durst testified he flew to California for a planned “staycation” with Berman in December 2000. When he let himself into her house, using a key she had lent him, he found her body and panicked, he testified. Unable to call the police using Berman’s landline, Durst said, he wrote a note to the Beverly Hills Police Department, telling them of a “cadaver” at Berman’s address.
Susan Berman was found dead inside this Benedict Canyon home in 2000.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Shortly before Berman’s death, Durst, whose family owns some of Manhattan’s most iconic and valuable buildings, had sent her two checks totaling $50,000. Prosecutors implied that Berman, having grown destitute near the end of her life, was leveraging a last asset — her knowledge of Kathie’s death and the coverup she arranged — to lean on Durst for money.
Chesnoff said the checks were merely gifts to help a friend who was broke. “What murderer gives his victim $50,000 and then tells the police where to find the body?” he asked.
Chesnoff conceded that the defense couldn’t explain every mystery in his client’s curious life. But “we don’t have to prove Bob’s innocence,” he said. “We have no burden. They” — and he pointed to the prosecutors sitting behind him — “do.”