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Robert Durst pleads not guilty in 16-year-old L.A. murder case

Durst, 73, has for years slipped in and out of law enforcement’s crosshairs.

For years, Robert Durst has slipped in and out of law enforcement's crosshairs.

The real estate scion has been considered a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife in New York in 1982, the target of a years-long investigation into the 2000 execution-style slaying of a writer in Los Angeles and a defendant in a 2003 murder trial in Texas after he chopped up the body of a neighbor and threw the pieces into Galveston Bay.

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In the case of his first wife, Durst was never charged. In the Texas slaying of a neighbor, he was acquitted by a jury even after confessing to the grisly killing.

But when Durst, 73, entered a Los Angeles courtroom on Monday afternoon, prosecutors hoped it would begin the final chapter in a cat-and-mouse game with various authorities that has spanned decades.

Durst appeared in the Airport Courthouse, emphatically proclaiming his innocence before a packed room.

Seated in a wheelchair, Durst sported a neck brace and wore a blue-and-white-striped shirt with khaki pants. He remained relatively quiet and still throughout the 45-minute arraignment, occasionally turning around to confer with his attorneys and glance at the throng of media filling the courtroom gallery.

But when asked if he would waive his right to an immediate preliminary hearing, Durst repeated his contention that he had nothing to do with his friend's slaying.

"I am not guilty," he said in a hoarse voice. "I did not kill Susan Berman."

Prosecutors allege Durst murdered Berman, a writer whose father was a noted Las Vegas mafia figure, because she was a witness to a crime.

Berman and Durst became friends when they attended classes at UCLA, and she had acted as Durst's unofficial spokeswoman after he became a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. Berman was shot in her Benedict Canyon home in December 2000 after New York authorities reopened their investigation into Kathleen's disappearance and were preparing to interview her.

Durst has frequently denied any involvement in Berman's killing or his wife's disappearance.

At the end of Monday's hearing, he was remanded into Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department custody. He will be held in either the downtown Men's Central Jail or the Twin Towers facility while awaiting trial, depending on the outcome of a medical screening, said Capt. Jeff Scroggin, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

Speaking to reporters before he entered the courtroom, Durst's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said his client has been dealing with several medical issues and is recovering from a spinal fusion surgery he underwent in Louisiana earlier this year. Durst is also a cancer survivor and has struggled with hydropencephalitis, a condition that involves brain swelling.

DeGuerin said he has been relishing the chance to plead Durst's case in court.

"We're happy to be here. We've wanted to be here since March" of 2015, he said.

DeGuerin did not take questions after the hearing.

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Prosecutors charged Durst with murder with special circumstances when they filed their case last year, claiming he lay in wait before shooting Berman.

Durst would be eligible for capital punishment if convicted, but Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin said in court that prosecutors would not be seeking the death penalty. A spokeswoman for the office declined to say why.

Durst's next court date is scheduled for Feb. 15, 2017, and a preliminary hearing probably will take place by March, though there may be some evidentiary issues to clear up between now and then.

Lewin asked Superior Court Judge Mark Windham to appoint a special master to review several items recovered last year during searches of Durst's hotel room in New Orleans and his home in Houston. The items may contain information that would be subject to attorney-client privilege, and neither prosecutors nor Durst's legal team, headed by DeGuerin, have reviewed those items. Windham instructed both parties to file motions about the issue.

The millionaire was arrested in connection with Berman's death last year when FBI agents found him at a New Orleans hotel. When he was caught, agents discovered he had a firearm and marijuana.

Durst was sentenced to seven years and one month in prison on weapons charges in New Orleans. As part of the deal, he was allowed to be transferred to Los Angeles to stand trial for Berman's killing. He was flown from Louisiana on Friday.

Last year's arrest marked the bizarre collision of a true-crime documentary and a years-long investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department into Berman's killing. Durst, who had faded from the spotlight after he was acquitted of murder in Texas in 2003, was launched back into the national consciousness when he became the subject of a six-part HBO documentary, "The Jinx."

The series explored what happened to Durst's first wife and Berman, as well as the complex legal drama that unfolded in his Galveston, Texas, murder trial over the killing and then dismembering of his neighbor, Morris Black. At the time, Durst was living in Galveston under an assumed identity as a mute woman in a threadbare apartment.

In that case, DeGuerin successfully argued that Durst killed Black in self-defense, then dismembered the body and hurled the remains into a bay while traumatized over the fact that he had shot his neighbor.

In the HBO series' closing episodes, filmmakers revealed they had uncovered a letter that Durst sent to Berman one year before her death. The note had several similarities to an anonymous letter sent to Beverly Hills police in 2000 that tipped them off to Berman's body. The envelopes on both misspelled "Beverly" as "Beverley."

Durst was arrested on a murder warrant issued in Berman's killing on March 14, 2015, one day before the finale of "The Jinx" aired on HBO. In the series' final episode, director Andrew Jarecki confronted Durst with the note in the series' final scene. Durst, possibly unaware he was still wearing a live microphone, then disappeared into a nearby restroom and muttered what some have interpreted as a chilling confession.

"What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course," Durst muttered.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

6:25 p.m.: This article was updated with some rewriting and additional information about where Durst is being held.

5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about where Durst will be held while awaiting trial.

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the courtroom.

2 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the arraignment hearing.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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