For captivated viewers of The Jinx, it may come as a surprise that real-estate heir Robert Durst is only now facing a murder trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court for the homicide of his friend Susan Berman — considering that it seemed like he admitted, on a hot mic, to killing her and two others in the finale of the HBO miniseries, which aired in 2015. But following a series of delays, the trial is finally under way, almost 40 years after the disappearance of his first suspected victim. And as is the case with all things Durst, the proceedings have been far from normal. Here’s a guide to all the latest drama.
What has Durst been accused of again?
The scion of one of the largest commercial real-estate empires in New York City, Durst was first suspected of foul play in 1982, when his wife disappeared after he claimed he dropped her off at a Metro-North station. (According to an investigator hired by Durst’s attorney at the time, the millionaire’s account of that night was full of contradictions.) On Christmas Eve in 2000, Durst’s longtime friend Susan Berman — who provided an alibi for him on the night of his wife’s appearance — was found murdered in her home in Los Angeles. Five years later, Durst claimed in a deposition that Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, called him shortly before her death, saying that she wanted to talk about his wife’s disappearance; prosecutors currently on the case allege that he killed Berman to stop her from coming forward with the truth about Kathleen Durst.
Earlier in 2000, Durst fled to Galveston, Texas, and disguised himself as a woman to avoid detection after being tipped off that the investigation into his wife’s presumed death had been reopened. The next year, he fled from the coastal city after the body parts of his neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay; eventually, he was caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania after shoplifting a chicken-salad sandwich, even though he was carrying $500. Durst was tried for the murder of Black and admitted to dismembering his victim with a paring knife, saws, and an ax. However, he claimed he shot Black in the face in self-defense; because the man’s head was never found, prosecutors could not dispute his account, and he was acquitted. In 2004, Durst pled guilty to two counts of bail jumping and one count of evidence tampering, a peculiar charge for chopping up one’s neighbor.
Why has it taken so long to bring Durst to trial?
Though the millionaire was arrested by the FBI the day before The Jinx’s final episode aired, preliminary hearings in Berman’s murder were delayed briefly in 2017 due to Durst’s health complications. That fall, proceedings were put off for another six months after Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston office of Durst’s defense attorney. After a request from Durst’s team to delay the trial again in 2019, his attorneys surprised the court when they filed a document admitting that their client wrote a letter tipping off the police as to where Berman’s body was located. (Durst had previously denied writing the letter, which he described as a message “only the killer could have written.”)
Finally, when the trial was set to begin in March 2020, the pandemic delayed the proceedings until May of this year. While the trial has been ongoing since then — interrupted by occasional short suspensions for Durst’s failing health — the defendant’s testimony was delayed for four days in August after a relative of a Durst legal team member attending the trial tested positive for the coronavirus.
Is the “confession” from The Jinx admissible in court?
To recap for those who have forgotten the finale after six years: Durst appeared to cop to the three murders while by himself during the taping of the miniseries. “What the hell did I do?” Durst whispered to himself in private while wearing a mic. “Killed them all, of course.” The audio made for riveting television, but in 2019, court documents filed by the defense showed that the audio presented as an admission was heavily edited, culled from a string of 20 sentences and presented out of order. And while Durst’s lawyers have argued that the splicing constituted manipulation, the full string of much-more-ambiguous comments was presented to jurors in March 2020, before the pandemic interrupted the trial.
Why did an SNL alum take the stand?
In June, former Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman testified that her friend Susan Berman told her she gave a fake alibi to get Durst off the hook in the disappearance of his wife. When prosecutors asked her if Berman indicated “whether this was an actual alibi or whether she had done something false,” Newman said that “it was something false.” She added that she “responded negatively” to Berman, who then tried to walk back her statement. Newman also said she felt “tremendous shame that I did not appreciate the gravity of what she was telling me.”
What’s Durst’s latest bombshell admission?
During cross-examination on August 17, Durst suggested that he had lied under oath in the past in order to get out of trouble:
Prosecutor: “If you’ve said you’ve taken an oath to tell the truth but you’ve also just told us that you would lie if you needed to, can you tell me how that would not destroy your credibility?”
Durst: “Because what I’m saying is mostly the truth. There are certain things I would lie about, certain very important things.”
Durst added that he would never admit to murdering Berman, Black, or his wife, saying that even “if I had, I would lie about it.”
Could there be another trial?
On the day the trial in Los Angeles began, Westchester district attorney Miriam Rocah announced that her office’s cold-case unit was reopening the investigation into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. “At the time that this alleged homicide occurred … we did not have the same understanding of domestic violence, and how that kind of abuse could play into relationships and how it could frankly color law enforcement — and by that I mean police and prosecutors’ perspectives,” Rocah told a local news station.