Los Angeles Times

Durst jury deliberate­s

Verdict would end a nearly fivemonth trial.

- By Matthew Ormseth

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 fivemonth 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 half of his life.

Jurors filed out of the courthouse Tuesday afternoon without reaching a verdict.

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 pieces of Durst’s next-door neighbor, Morris Black, washed ashore on Galveston Bay in Texas. Durst has admitted dismemberi­ng the body after Black was killed in what Durst described as a struggle over a gun.

For about the last 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, acting at Durst’s behest, 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.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin told the jury that given Durst’s tendency to lie, he had likely “twisted the truth” — telling Berman his wife

had died in some type of accident — “to get Susan to help him.”

Two decades later, authoritie­s revived the investigat­ion into his wife’s disappeara­nce, and Berman told Durst she had been contacted by the police. Durst “decided, you know what, that’s a loose end I’ve got to tie up,” Lewin argued to the jury.

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, Lewin argued, is “not some nut job serial killer who goes around killing for the thrill of it,” but a calculatin­g man who resorts to murder when he believes he has no other way of suppressin­g the truth.

“For Bob Durst, murder is not his first option,” he told the jury. “Murder may not be the second option, it may not be his third option. But in the end, pushed into a corner, murder is an option for him.”

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.”

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.

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 her knowledge of Kathie’s death and the cover-up 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.”

Lewin urged the jury to examine the story Durst himself had offered over 14 days on the witness stand. Taken at his word, Durst’s wife disappeare­d, and he was the last person to have seen her alive. His best friend was murdered, and he was the one who found her body. His neighbor in Texas pulled a gun on Durst, was killed during the ensuing struggle and was eventually dismembere­d by Durst.

“That’s a lot of bad luck,” Lewin said. “Or is it over 40 years of undeserved good luck?

“Do not let this narcissist­ic psychopath,” Lewin said, pointing at Durst, his wizened frame hunched in a wheelchair, “get away with what he has done.”

 ?? Al Seib Los Angeles Times ?? ROBERT DURST was on trial for nearly five months for the murder of his friend Susan Berman.
Al Seib Los Angeles Times ROBERT DURST was on trial for nearly five months for the murder of his friend Susan Berman.
 ?? HBO ?? SUSAN BERMAN, with Robert Durst, was found dead in her home in 2000.
HBO SUSAN BERMAN, with Robert Durst, was found dead in her home in 2000.

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