Crime & Courts

If Durst case goes to trial, three skilled litigators will square off

Texas legal legend Dick DeGuerin, who successfully defended Robert Durst in one murder case, aims to try again

Legendary Texas litigator Dick DeGuerin sounds like Matlock and dresses like J.R. Ewing.

The son of a politically connected oil and gas lawyer, DeGuerin, 74, got his start as a prosecutor in Houston and went on to represent Waco cult leader David Koresh. One of his biggest wins as a criminal defense attorney came in Galveston: the 2003 acquittal of Robert Durst, a New York real estate scion who had admitted to killing his neighbor, chopping his body into pieces and then dumping the parts into Galveston Bay.

Now DeGuerin says he's again heading up a team to defend Durst, 71, who was charged last week with the December 2000 murder of his confidant, Susan Berman, in Benedict Canyon. Los Angeles police detectives said two handwriting experts have linked Durst to an anonymous letter alerting authorities to a "cadaver" at Berman's home.

"I don't think 'legend' is too strong of a word," Tony Buzbee, another high-profile Houston attorney, said of DeGuerin.

If the case goes to trial, DeGuerin is expected to face two of the most skilled and venerated prosecutors in Los Angeles County — one who's built a career prosecuting cold cases with mainly circumstantial evidence and one who won a murder case similar to Durst's two years ago.

"They've put an A-team on this case," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. "A real A-team."

At a news conference last week, DeGuerin strode to the microphones and proclaimed that Durst didn't kill Berman.

He said he thinks his client — "Bob," as he calls him — was arrested "not because of facts" but because of "The Jinx," a six-part HBO documentary about Durst for which he gave an extensive interview. The final episode aired March 15, a day after Durst was arrested on a murder warrant in New Orleans.

"It's not based on facts, it's based on ratings," said DeGuerin, who would need a California-licensed attorney to join the team, although it's not yet clear who that will be.

The acquittal in the Galveston case — in which Durst admitted to sawing off his neighbor's limbs with a bow saw and faced up to 99 years in prison if convicted — stunned legal experts at the time, who credited the result to a smart defense team. DeGuerin and his team of lawyers argued that Durst shot his neighbor in self-defense during a violent struggle and was in a traumatized state when he dismembered the body.

Judge Susan Criss, who presided over the Galveston case, said she still remembers how she felt when she heard that DeGuerin would be defending Durst.

"I have been an incredible fan of Dick DeGuerin since I was in law school and still am," she said. "I started studying my behind off. I worried at first: 'He's so strong-willed — can I handle him?'"

Though DeGuerin's courtroom demeanor might be described as folksy, T. Gerald Treece, a professor at Houston's South Texas School of Law, cautioned against thinking of him as a "good ol' boy."

"The folksy manner disguises a huge intellect and sharp wit for trial work," he said. "The government better have a case."

L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin, one of two prosecutors on the case, has forged a reputation as a skillful courtroom strategist who specializes in decades-old cold cases — ones that rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.

He prosecuted an Orange County engineer, who was sentenced in December to 26 years to life in prison, for the gruesome murder of his ex-girlfriend more than three decades earlier. During the trial, Lewin told jurors that Douglas Bradford had killed Lynne Knight with a homemade garrote — a weapon pieced together with chunks of a wooden mop handle and thick wire.

A break in the case came after a Torrance Police Department cold-case detective found a picture-hanging wire, like the one used in the killing, in Bradford's mother's home. Bradford was arrested in 2009 and convicted last year.

At a panel discussion at Loyola Law School last year, Lewin said he's worked cold cases for more than 15 years, describing them as tough cases that require "elbow grease."

"I'm half investigator, half prosecutor," he said.

Jim Warner Wallace, the now-retired Torrance detective who worked the Bradford murder case and several others with Lewin, described him as the type of prosecutor who will "sleep three hours a night for two years" to help crack a case.

"If you're a suspect in a cold case," he said, "you don't want this guy on your tail."

In the courtroom, Lewin swoops his arms to punctuate his points and sticks his neck out and widens his eyes as he listens. Wallace, and two defense attorneys who have worked against Lewin, said the prosecutor easily engages and charms jurors.

"He is tenacious, diligent, exceedingly hardworking, thorough and aggressive," said Robert L. Shapiro, who defended Bradford.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian, on the other hand, has a low-key courtroom style — self-deprecating, even.

Two years ago he prosecuted Christian Gerhartsreiter, who pretended for years to be a member of the Rockefeller family. After Balian finished questioning some witnesses, he'd sit down at the counsel table, only to raise his hand for the judge's attention.

Then he'd ask one more question, much in the style of the fictional, cigar-smoking Lt. Columbo, known for his endless inquiries.

"I can recall thinking, 'Wow, I'm glad he didn't ask 'Question X,'" said Brad Bailey, a Boston-based attorney who defended Gerhartsreiter. "Then, sure enough, 'Question X' would be the question he'd raise his hand and say, 'I have one more question.'"

Bailey described Balian as an extremely honest prosecutor, meticulous yet relaxed, and skilled at humanizing victims for the jurors.

At a conference in September, Balian spoke about prosecuting the Gerhartsreiter case. When he mentioned the victim's wife, Linda Sohus, his voice sweetened.

"She was passionate about art," he said, smiling sadly.

The two cases have some striking parallels.

Gerhartsreiter pretended to be part of a powerful, wealthy family from New York, and Durst actually is. Defense attorneys in the Gerhartsreiter case used handwriting on postcards to try to clear their client, and detectives say handwriting experts have linked Durst to an anonymous letter about Berman's death. Balian showed jurors an interview Gerhartsreiter gave to "Dateline NBC," and Durst was interviewed extensively for "The Jinx."

With the three experienced litigators on the case, Levenson said she thinks it's guaranteed to be "a fight." She's not sure, though, how an attorney with a Texas style will fare in a Los Angeles County courtroom.

"He wears his cowboy hat," she said. "We'll see if he can wear it in the courtroom here."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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