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The Jinx in Court: Your Essential Guide to the Robert Durst Murder Trial

Five years after authorities arrested him in New Orleans, Robert Durst is on trial for the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman in Los Angeles

By Natalie Finn Mar 11, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Robert Durst, 2017MARK BOSTER/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty years after Susan Berman was shot to death in her Benedict Canyon bungalow, someone is on trial for her murder.

And not just anyone. Robert Durst, the central figure in the 2015 HBO series The Jinx, is the defendant. Opening arguments finally began in a Los Angeles courtroom last week, five years after authorities tracked Durst down in New Orleans and arrested him on suspicion of murder. His alleged motive: Berman may have known too much about the mysterious disappearance of Durst's wife in 1982 and was about to talk to police.

He has pleaded not guilty.

In the meantime the wealthy New York real estate scion was acquitted of murdering a man in Galveston, Texas—though he admitted to chopping up the body—and his defense team has insisted that whatever people think was a big gotcha moment in The Jinx was not the confession it was made out to be.

There's no doubt, however, that the details are stranger than fiction.

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Also among the clues that pointed authorities to Durst were a murder scene that indicated Berman knew her killer and two identical misspellings of "Beverley Hills," one of which was purportedly on an envelope Durst sent to Berman unearthed on The Jinx and, the other, a note sent to Beverly Hills police around the time Berman was killed. The entirety of the message was the word "cadaver" and what turned out to be Berman's address on it.

After Durst's legal team initially tried to block handwriting experts from testifying, they dropped the matter and, according to court documents filed in December, Durst admitted to writing what detectives called "the cadaver note."

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"When Bob showed up and found her dead, he panicked," lead defense attorney Dick DeGuerin told the jury in his opening argument this week, per the Los Angeles Times. "He wrote the anonymous letter so her body would be found, and he ran."

The trial is expected to last for weeks and the cast of characters is only going to grow, so let us unpack what you need to know to have a working grasp of the case right here:

A Missing Wife

No one really knows what happened to Kathleen McCormack Durst, Robert Durst's wife of almost nine years, who was last seen by anyone other than her husband on Jan. 31, 1982. Kathie was a few months shy of graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, after which she hoped to become a pediatrician. She attended a friend's dinner party in Newtown, Conn., and Durst would later tell police that he last saw his wife at the train station, where she boarded a train back to Manhattan.

Kathie had reportedly told friends that Robert—or Bobby, as many called him—was domineering and abusive and that, if anything happened to her, it would be at his hands. Then she vanished without a trace. Durst has never been arrested or charged with any crime in connection with her disappearance.

Inspired by True Events

Durst's rocky relationship with his father, his unraveling marriage and Kathie's disappearance inspired director Anthony Jarecki's 2010 drama All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst as increasingly unhappy couple David and Katie Marks. Apparently not fazed by the possibility of his actions being scrutinized further, Durst provided commentary for the 2011 DVD release.

 

He acknowledged that some of the scenes in which David acts abusively toward Katie were true to life, but he was saddened by a scene that implies David killed their dog. "This made me feel bad about the movie, Andrew," Durst told Jarecki. "I mean the idea that I could kill Igor, I don't like."

 

"I look back on my life," Durst said, "and the two things which most adversely affected my life was my mother dying and the way I treated Kathie. I mean, I could have let her have a child. I mean, I would have survived it all. I don't think I would have been a real good father but I think she would have been a real good mother, and I didn't have to be so controlling."

On the Case

Before "Judge Jeanine" made her opinionated mark at Fox News, Jeanine Pirro was the Westchester County District Attorney who reopened the investigation into Kathleen Durst's disappearance in 2000.

Susan Berman, a crime writer and the daughter of mob figure David Berman, had known Robert Durst since they were both students at UCLA. They were so close, authorities believed she not only knew what happened to Kathie Durst but that she also called the missing woman's school and pretended to be Kathie in order to perpetuate the ruse that she was still alive, giving her longtime friend an alibi.

 

Los Angeles magazine reported that Durst gave the financially strapped Berman at least $50,000 by November 2000, and that she told friends she was worried that her pleas for money were ruining their friendship. 

 

For some reason, she told Durst in 2000 when the investigation into Kathie's disappearance was reopened that both New York and L.A. police wanted to talk to her about it. Weird thing was, according to prosecutors, no one from the investigation had reached out to Berman yet.

 

On Dec. 24, 2000, neighbors saw Berman's three dogs running loose and her back door wide open. They called police, who found her inside, dead from a gunshot wound to the back of her head. The so-called cadaver note that Durst has recently admitted to writing, informing police that there was a body at a "Beverley Hills" address, was mailed on Dec. 23. 

 

"She wouldn't have ratted him out," said Julie Smith, a friend of Berman's who served as executor of her estate, per Los Angeles. "That's not who she was. She fought hard not to be a mob girl. But she had a whole lot of mob values."

The Decapitated Neighbor

After marrying again and putting his wife in charge of managing his money, Durst moved to Galveston, Texas, and rented an apartment—while pretending to be a mute woman.

 

"I wore the wig for the first couple of weeks but it's a real inconvenience, pain in the tush," Durst said in the All Good Things commentary. "I don't know how women do it with the hair in my mouth all of the time. I mean, jogging with it was absolutely impossible and, after a while, I just stopped doing it."

 

Morris Black lived across the hall. Durst insisted that Black's death in 2001 was self-defense, that his neighbor had first pointed Durst's gun at him, after which they fought and the gun went off, mortally wounding Black. Durst maintained that he removed the head from the body and chopped the rest up in order to dispose of Black's remains with more ease—and that he got rid of the body out of fear that police simply wouldn't believe his story.

 

"I remember the nightmare I went through over the next several days [after shooting Black], trying to decide what to do, deciding I could not go to the police, the police are not going to believe this," Durst recalled in the commentary. "Nobody's going to believe that I came down here to Galveston, a rich guy, rented a $300-a-month apartment disguised as a woman and, oh, by the way, my neighbor is lying in my kitchen with a shot in the face from my gun."

 

A jury, however, did find him believable and found him not guilty of murder in 2003.

The Director

Durst got in touch with director Andrew Jarecki after watching All Good Things, and he agreed to a meeting—his first time speaking to anyone in a journalistic fashion about his life—and that turned into 20 hours of interviews conducted over the course of several years. Some ended up in the DVD commentary, and hours more ended up in The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a six-part series that premiered on HBO in 2015 and was early fodder for the true-crime wave that has since fully soaked pop culture.

The Jinx

In episode five, Berman's stepson Sareb Kaufman contacts the filmmakers and gives them some of Susan's things, including an envelope mailed to her in 1999 addressed in block printing with the misspelled "BEVERLEY HILLS."

In the finale, a forensic document expert compares the printing on the envelope with the anonymous letter sent to police in 2000, and he concludes that the writing is almost certainly from the same person. Durst resists the invitation to meet Jarecki for another interview, but then he's arrested for violating a restraining order his brother Douglas has in place against him, and he eventually agrees.

So they meet and it it's just yet another bizarre occurrence when the man of the hour is recorded on a hot mic in the bathroom saying to himself, "What the hell did I do? Killed 'em all, of course."

A jury has yet to be tasked with deciding whether that was meant as any kind of admission or acknowledgment of guilt, but the "was that a confession?!" moment certainly made a media splash and prompted the L.A. District Attorney's Office—which Jarecki had been in contact with since 2013 as he pieced Durst's story together—to make its move.

The Arrest

As the evidence against him seemed to mount each week on TV, prosecutors got concerned that Durst might try to flee the country. On March 14, 2005, the day before the finale of The Jinx aired on HBO, Durst was arrested at a New Orleans hotel—where he had registered under an alias—on suspicion of murder. 

The Prosecutor

"Bob Durst is very honest about the fact that the rules don't apply to him," Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, the lead prosecutor on the Durst case, said in his opening argument.

Per Los Angeles, Lewin told Durst that Berman had lied to him about being contacted by police. "I think that Susan was trying to subtly squeeze you for money," he's quoted as saying. "By the way, for what it's worth, Bob, 'cause I know you care about her, I don't think Susan ever would have said anything."

The Defense Attorney

"Bob Durst didn't kill Susan Berman and doesn't know who did," Texas-based attorney Dick DeGuerin said in his opening statement. DeGuerin successfully defended Durst at his previous murder trial in 2003, convincing the jury that his client killed Morris Black in self-defense.

About the current murder charge against Durst, DeGuerin told Los Angeles in May 2019, "The prosecution's case is based on speculation and hearsay and no scientific evidence. There's a lack of any physical evidence."

DeGuerin told the court that his client planned to testify in his own defense, so Robert Durst will be heard from once again. 

UPDATE: On March 15, the Durst trial was postponed in the wake of the Los Angeles County Superior Court's decision to press pause on new criminal and civil proceedings for at least 30 days. The trial was originally scheduled to resume April 6, but with L.A. County residents still being urged to stay home as of April 3, the date could be pushed further back.

(Originally published March 11, 2020, at 9 a.m. PT)

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