Robert Durst Found Guilty of Murder After Decades of Suspicion

Mr. Durst, the onetime heir to a Manhattan real estate empire, was convicted of killing a close confidante in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2000.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

LOS ANGELES — Robert A. Durst, the enigmatic real estate scion who evaded criminal suspicion for half his life only to become a national sensation after damaging admissions were aired in a 2015 documentary on HBO, was convicted on Friday in the execution-style murder of a close confidante more than 20 years ago.

The verdict, which came after about seven and a half hours of deliberations, was the latest act in a case that spanned almost four decades. It began in the wealthy precincts of New York with the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Durst’s first wife, Kathie, in 1982 and concluded with his conviction for the 2000 killing of Susan Berman, a friend who prosecutors said helped him cover up his wife’s disappearance and death.

Mr. Durst, a frail 78-year-old millionaire who sat through the trial in a wheelchair, was convicted of first-degree murder and faces the possibility of a life sentence. A judge is scheduled to sentence him at later date.

The trial was remarkable on many levels. It began in March 2020 but adjourned days later for 14 months because of the coronavirus pandemic. When it resumed in May, the jurors were spread across the gallery while the prosecutors sat in the jury box. Everyone, including the judge and witnesses, wore masks as precautions against Covid-19.

Ultimately, the prosecution called 80 witnesses and introduced nearly 300 exhibits. But the most damaging evidence came, as a deputy Los Angeles County district attorney, John Lewin, said in his opening statements, right out of Mr. Durst’s own mouth. The jury heard Mr. Durst make a series of acknowledgments in a nearly three-hour interview with Mr. Lewin right after his arrest in 2015, in hundreds of jailhouse phone calls and in more than 20 hours of interviews with the producers of the documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”

Mr. Durst, whose family owns many iconic buildings in Manhattan, has lived a life with enough titillating elements that they could fill a dozen true-crime shows, including a Mafia princess, a missing young wife, the death and dismemberment of a drifter, celebrities like Laraine Newman and Steve Rubell, and decades of family betrayal.

Although Mr. Durst was charged only with killing Ms. Berman, the prosecution contended that her death was connected to the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Durst’s first wife and the killing of the drifter, whom he had befriended in 2001. Mr. Durst was acquitted in 2003 of killing the drifter, Morris Black, who lived across the hall from him in a rooming house in Galveston, Texas, where Mr. Durst was hiding from the authorities and living as a mute woman.

Mr. Durst has never been charged in connection with his wife’s disappearance despite investigations by the New York Police Department, the State Police and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. His lawyers have emphasized that there was no weapon, fingerprints or fibers connecting him to her disappearance and death.

Still, the disappearance of his wife has long been both in the background and at the core of this case against Mr. Durst; prosecutors said he had confided in Ms. Berman, who helped him evade the authorities.

During the trial, evidence was introduced that placed Mr. Durst at Ms. Berman’s house in December 2000. For nearly 20 years, Mr. Durst had denied that he was even in Los Angeles at the time of her killing. He also had denied that he was the author of an anonymous note sent to the Police Department alerting officers to the presence of a “cadaver” at Ms. Berman’s home, on the edge of Beverly Hills.

In hearings that took place before the trial, Mr. Durst’s lawyers vigorously disputed evidence by document examiners who had identified Mr. Durst as the author of that note. But a friend of Mr. Durst’s, Emily Altman, under withering questioning by Mr. Lewin, blurted out that Mr. Durst had told her he was in Beverly Hills at the time of Ms. Berman’s death.

On the eve of the trial, Mr. Durst’s lawyers acknowledged that their client had both written the note and had found Ms. Berman in a pool of blood inside her home. Still, in his closing arguments, David Chesnoff, one of Mr. Durst’s lawyers, said prosecutors had not made their case against his client. “No evidence is evidence,” he told jurors. “All you have is this theory. It’s a theory they want to rely upon that somehow Susan Berman and Bob Durst were in this situation where Susan had something on him.”

Mr. Durst’s brother Douglas, who oversees the Durst family’s $8 billion real estate empire, was a witness for the prosecution, as was Nick Chavin, a longtime friend of Mr. Durst’s.

Mr. Chavin testified that Mr. Durst contacted him in December 2014 to say he wanted to talk about their mutual friend, Ms. Berman, and about his first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst. As the two men stood on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in New York, Mr. Chavin asked Mr. Durst what he wanted to say about Ms. Berman. According to Mr. Chavin’s testimony, Mr. Durst responded in his once characteristically gravelly voice: “It was her or me. I had no choice.”

In his closing arguments, Habib Balian, one of the prosecutors, would repeat those words: “The case can be summed up in nine simple words. ‘It was her or me. I had no choice.’ That says it all.”

Leave a Reply