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

Now six years after his arrest, Robert Durst's murder trial is finally set to begin in Los Angeles; the subject of HBO's The Jinx is accused of killing his friend Susan Berman in 2000.

By Natalie Finn May 17, 2021 9:00 PMTags
Robert Durst, 2017MARK BOSTER/AFP via Getty Images

Now 21 years after Susan Berman was shot to death in her Benedict Canyon bungalow, Robert Durst is on trial for her murder.

Opening arguments began more than a year ago but proceedings were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. On May 17, court resumed with questions for the jury that was seated in March 2020 to determine if this is still the same panel that should sit in judgment of the 78-year-old Durst, whose eventful life came into focus in the 2015 HBO series The Jinx.

Durst, who according to his attorneys is battling bladder cancer and other health issues, was not present. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham denied the defense's request for another postponement, while Deputy District Attorney John Lewin called the request to have Durst released to a hospital for treatment a "get out of jail free card."

He has pleaded not guilty to the 2000 murder of Berman, a close friend whom prosecutors allege he killed to silence before she talked to detectives about the 1982 disappearance of Durst's wife Kathie.

Meanwhile, the defense team for Durst, the privileged heir to a New York real estate fortune, 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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After Berman's death, Durst moved to Galveston, Texas, where in 2001 he fatally shot and dismembered his neighbor Morris Black—because, it was said at trial, that Black had discovered who Durst really was despite the defendant's attempts to disguise himself by wearing women's clothing. Durst pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense, and was acquitted of murder. 

In September 2004 he pleaded guilty to two counts of jumping bail and one count of evidence tampering (for dumping the remains) and was sentenced to five years in prison, including about two years of time served. He was paroled in July 2005, sent back for a violation that December and ultimately released in March 2006. 

Also among the clues that led to Durst's 2015 arrest in New Orleans and subsequent extradition to Los Angeles were a murder scene that indicated Berman knew her killer and two identical misspellings of "Beverley Hills"—one purportedly on an envelope Durst sent to Berman that was 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 to police was the word "cadaver" and what turned out to be Berman's address.

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 2019, 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 in March 2020, per the Los Angeles Times. "He wrote the anonymous letter so her body would be found, and he ran."

After COVID-19 shut everything down on March 12, 2020, Durst's attorneys first tried to get the judge to declare a mistrial the following month, arguing that the delay, however long, would prevent their client from getting a fair trial. The defense team submitted a list of potential questions to ask the 12 jurors and 10 of the 11 alternates who were seated last year, but according to Sacramento's KCRA.com Judge Windham wouldn't allow it, saying he himself would ask if the jurors had read or heard about the case over the past year, or whether serving now would cause undue hardship. 

If all goes on according to plan, finally, the cast of characters is only going to grow (more than 100 prosecution witnesses were reportedly on tap to testify), so let us unpack what you need to know to have a working grasp of the case before it gets more complicated:

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 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.

Warning Sign

Kathie 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.

The Death of Susan Berman

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

Berman's big mistake may have been telling 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. Only, 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 admitted in 2019 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

Durst married Debrah Charatan in 2000. He put his second wife in charge of managing his money and moved to Galveston, Texas, where he 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—or at least had reasonable doubt of his intent—and found him not guilty of murder in 2003.

The Director

Durst got in touch with director 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 compared the printing on the envelope with the anonymous letter sent to police in 2000, and he concluded that the writing was almost certainly from the same person. Durst at first resists the invitation to meet Jarecki for another interview, but after he was arrested for violating a restraining order his brother Douglas Durst had in place against him, he eventually agreed.

So they met and in what was just the umpteenth another bizarre occurrence, Durst was 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 in March 2020.

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 for the death and dismemberment of Morris Black.

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."

If the judge accepts the jury as is, the prosecution and defense will be granted up to two hours each to make new opening statements, a refresher course on the details as the years-in-the-making trial gets underway.

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