A California jury has found multimillionaire real estate heir Robert Durst guilty of murdering his longtime friend Susan Berman in 2000, the first homicide conviction for a man suspected of killing three people in three states over the past 39 years.
Durst, 78 and frail, will likely die in prison as the jury also found him guilty on Friday of the special circumstances of lying in wait and killing a witness, which carry a mandatory life sentence. Superior Court Judge Mark Windham, who oversaw the trial, set a sentencing hearing for October 18.
The trial came six years after Durst’s apparent confession was aired in the HBO television documentary series The Jinx, in which Durst was caught on a hot microphone in the toilet saying to himself, “What the hell did I do? … Killed them all, of course.”
The nine-woman, three-man jury had deliberated for seven and a half hours over three days for Friday’s decision. Durst, who has been in jail for the duration of the trial, was not present for the reading of the verdict because he was in isolation after having been exposed to somebody with COVID-19.
Windham decided to have the verdict read in Durst’s absence. Speaking to lawyers for both sides later, he called the case “the most extraordinary trial that I’ve ever seen or even heard about”.
Lead prosecutor John Lewin, who had pursued Durst for years, credited The Jinx filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling for their revealing interviews with Durst, telling reporters after the verdict: “Without them having conducted the interviews, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
In closing arguments, Lewin called Durst a “narcissistic psychopath” who killed Berman in an attempt to cover up the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, in New York in 1982.
Judge Windham receives the verdict from the bailiff before finding Durst guilty of murder [Genaro Molina/Pool via Reuters]
Durst was only on trial for killing Berman in California, but prosecutors argued he murdered three people: his missing wife, Berman and a neighbour in Texas who discovered his identity when Durst was hiding from the law.
Despite long being a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, a 29-year-old medical student, Durst was never charged. Prosecutors said he killed her, then decided to kill Berman 18 years later because she had told others that she helped Durst cover up the crime. Berman, 55, was shot in the back of her head inside her Beverly Hills home.
Shortly after the verdict, the McCormack family issued a statement urging prosecutors in Westchester County, New York, to prosecute Durst.
“The justice system in Los Angeles has finally served the Berman family. It is now time for Westchester to do the same for the McCormack family,” the statement said.
Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah reopened the case in May, shortly after taking office.
Her office issued a statement on Friday commending those involved in securing the conviction, but a spokesperson said the Westchester investigation “remains ongoing and we will have no further comment at this time”.
‘Sick old man’
Defence lawyers portrayed Durst, a cancer survivor who testified from a wheelchair wearing a baggy jail uniform, as a “sick old man”. But he withstood 15 days as a witness, nine of them under cross-examination.
During a 58-day trial spread over a year and a half, including a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, Durst testified that he discovered Berman’s murdered body when he went to visit her but did not call the police.
The prosecution also delved into the 2001 death and dismemberment of Morris Black, who was Durst’s neighbour in Galveston, Texas. A Galveston jury acquitted Durst of murder, even though Durst admitted he chopped up Black’s body and dumped it in Galveston Bay.
Durst said Black pulled a gun on him and was shot accidentally when the two men wrestled over the firearm.
Black’s death marked the second time Durst had a dead body at his feet, according to his testimony.
In both cases, Durst said he at first tried to call the 911 emergency number, but later decided against it, fearing nobody would believe he was not guilty.
Besides The Jinx audio, two other pieces of evidence appeared to damage Durst’s defence. One was the recorded 2017 testimony of Nick Chavin, a mutual friend who said Durst admitted to him in 2014 that he had killed Berman.
“It was her or me. I had no choice,” Chavin recounted Durst telling him.
Durst also admitted he authored a handwritten letter to Beverly Hills police with the word “cadaver” and Berman’s address, directing them to her undiscovered body. Durst had denied writing the note for 20 years.
Durst is the grandson of the founder of The Durst Organization, one of New York City’s premier real estate companies.
He long ago left the company, now run by his estranged brother Douglas Durst, who testified at trial and said of his sibling: “He’d like to murder me.”