Former Galveston County District Court Judge Susan Criss presided over Robert Durst's murder trial in Texas in 2003, where he was acquitted in the 2001 killing of neighbor Morris Black, whose body parts were found wrapped in garbage bags and dumped in Galveston Bay. Now, Durst, 71, has been charged with murder in connection with the 2000 shooting of friend Susan Berman in Beverly Hills and is awaiting extradition in a Louisiana jail. Durst was also a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
Criss, a former prosecutor who is now a private practice attorney, appeared in the HBO documentary about Durst, "The Jinx." She spoke with The Times about her memories of the famous wealthy scion of a New York real estate empire, the charges he's now facing and the evidence, including handwriting on a letter addressed to police after Berman's death. That letter alerted police to a "cadaver" at Berman's residence.
Durst is expected back in court Monday with his attorneys in New Orleans for a bond hearing on state charges after he was found in possession of a revolver and marijuana when arrested March 14 on the California warrant. What can we expect at the hearing?
He's going to be extradited back to California, it's just a matter of when. What else do they have to do with these cases — they're not going to prosecute him for that in Louisiana. I mean, he was planning a trip to Cuba!
How do you know that?
They didn't just start working on this case watching television. I've known for three years that the LAPD has been working on a revised investigation and simultaneous to that, the FBI has been working on an investigation. When I realized it was the FBI that arrested him on that warrant — the FBI knew exactly where he was staying under an assumed name. That speaks volumes.
Right. The warrant showed Durst had been staying at a New Orleans hotel under the name "Everette Ward," but how did investigators know he was in New Orleans?
They have been actively working on catching Robert Durst for a long time but they wanted to make sure they had all their ducks in a row.
Durst's attorneys have said this arrest is a publicity stunt, coming as it did on the heels of the last episode of the HBO show. What do you think?
I've never known anyone in law enforcement to hold off on arresting someone for three years to help someone in the entertainment industry. They might delay a 6 o'clock [perpetrator] walk, but they're not going to delay an arrest in a murder investigation to get ratings.
But they do know that the suspect reads the newspaper, watches television and knows when he's about to get arrested and is about to escape.
You saw Durst's colorful lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, in action during the Galveston trial, and he was also featured wearing his signature tan cowboy hat in "The Jinx." What should people know about him and how he's likely to handle this latest case?
He has a lot of integrity, he's a professional, he is going to come to court extremely prepared and is going to confront anything negative in the case upfront.
He says, "You have to kiss the ugly baby." When you have these horrible facts, you can't run from them. He's going to put a good spin on them and he's going to try to find others to put the negative focus on. In this case, I predict it will be ["Jinx" filmmakers] Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling and myself, anyone in the media. He will humanize Bob, poor little Bob.
In our trial, they lowered his chair at the counsel table, to make him look smaller. They dressed him in overly large clothes to make him look tiny — he's a small man to begin with. They found some ways to explain some real, real bad facts that would make you think a person is a monster.
I remember a line during closing argument where Dick DeGuerin said, "It's OK to like Bob."
What did you learn about Robert Durst during the course of the Galveston trial?
You wonder is this a crazy person, someone who is criminally insane, like a monster from "Silence of the Lambs"? There was a time at the beginning when he was acting crazy in court, pretending to have conversations with several invisible people at the same time at the counsel table…. He decided he would act crazy in court.
This is not an insane person. This is a person who can think and reason. He can be quite pleasant — he's very intelligent.
You can't just pigeonhole him and say he's this sort of crazy person or this sort of psychopath. I've been asked many times, "Do you think he's a serial killer?" Well, how many does it take to make a series?
He's very cold and calculating. Every time I think I know everything, there's some new twist or surprise.
I don't think he wants to get caught. I think he wanted to hurt his family and embarrass them. That's why he did "The Jinx." I think he thought he could manage it, that he was clever enough. He loves to talk.
There's things that are surprising the rest of the country that are not surprising me.... I think there's a line that you cross with him, and when you cross that line, it's goodbye.
As a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, what advice would you offer those preparing to prosecute Durst in Los Angeles?
There's such a wealth of information out there that it probably seems overwhelming. I would tell the prosecutors to listen to every minute of those taped phone conversations from the jail in Pennsylvania [where Durst was held after he jumped bail in Galveston in 2001]. You will learn a lot about him and how he thinks. Now that I know more about him, I'm looking through there and seeing other things.
I would read Susan Berman's murder mystery books — I think they have clues in them. I would go to [Berman's stepson] Sareb Kaufman and look at that box [of Berman's possessions featured in "The Jinx"]. They need to look at that apartment and everything they can find. Leave no stone unturned.
There's things that they might have missed that now make more sense.
Technology's always changing and there's times you may have processed a crime scene and now there's more accurate tests. Test everything again. The letter that came to them with the cadaver note — check the envelope to see if there's DNA. Back then we licked envelopes and stamps. I would check that letter and envelope for DNA.
There's a wealth of information there. Never think you've got enough — there's always more. Talk to the [Durst] family. They have it in the show that when Kathie [Durst] went missing, Douglas [Durst] hired a private investigator so they may know more.