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Jury selection begins in the Robert Durst murder trial

New York real estate scion Robert Durst appears in Los Angeles court for a pretrial hearing in his murder case.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly five years after Robert Durst was arrested in connection with the execution-style slaying of his best friend, dozens of potential jurors who could decide his fate filled a Westside courtroom Wednesday to begin jury selection in his murder trial.

Durst, 76, the eccentric heir to a New York real estate fortune, is accused of shooting writer Susan Berman, 55, in the back of the head in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000. Prosecutors contend he killed Berman, whom he had known since their college days at UCLA, to keep her from implicating him in the disappearance of his first wife.

Kathleen McCormack Durst disappeared in New York in 1982, and her body has never been found. Durst maintains his innocence in Berman’s death. No one has ever been charged in the disappearance of Kathleen Durst.

The trial’s start also marks five years from the first airing of the “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” a revelatory, six-part HBO documentary for which Durst sat for hours of interviews — against his attorney’s advice — and during which Durst makes potentially incriminating statements.

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The documentary and its makers are expected to feature prominently during the trial, which is expected to last up to five months.

Durst entered the courtroom on the eighth floor of Los Angeles County Superior Court, near LAX, seated in a jail-issued wheelchair, wearing a plaid blazer and hearing aids. On the table in front of him, propped up on a stand, an iPad showed a real-time transcript of the proceedings being typed by court reporters.

When Dick DeGuerin introduced his client to prospective jurors, Durst rose from the wheelchair, trembling. Durst suffers from fluid on the brain and recently underwent kidney surgery and a spinal procedure, said another of his attorneys, Chip Lewis.

DeGuerin is the Houston attorney who in 2003 successfully defended Durst against charges that he murdered his neighbor, Morris Black, while he was living in Galveston, Texas. Durst admitted that he had shot the victim — unintentionally during a tussle over a gun, he said — and dismembered Black’s body. A jury found him not guilty.

In Los Angeles, 414 prospective jurors filled out questionnaires. Of those, 244 were released by stipulations from the defense and prosecution. Fifty-seven jurors were summoned Wednesday, from a pool of 170.

Judge Mark E. Windham began one by one, asking them if they knew of Durst’s often-chronicled history from media reports and whether they would hold it against the defendant if he did not testify in his own defense.

Windham asked a computer systems analyst from El Segundo, who had reported in a juror questionnaire that she had “some preconceived notions” about the case, where those came from.

Media coverage, she said. If picked as a juror, the analyst said it would be “so tempting to do my own research,” rather than coming to a verdict based on the evidence in Windham’s courtroom.

An office administrator from South Los Angeles said she was “willing to hear both sides” and wouldn’t hold it against a defendant who didn’t testify.

A Westwood psychologist, who said her close friend was a victim of domestic violence, worried she might “subconsciously favor one side over the other.”

Windham said that while the trial will include evidence of domestic violence, he was concerned whether a juror harbored a conscious bias that would lead them to make a conscious choice, for or against a verdict and irrespective of evidence.

“Do you think, if you heard stories of domestic violence, you would tend to identify with victims of that violence and abandon your neutral role?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

Some of the questioning followed a more prosaic line. A Malibu attorney who lived near the Ventura County line fretted about traffic, telling the judge that it took her one hour and 45 minutes to get to his courtroom Wednesday. If there were an accident on the Pacific Coast Highway, she could hold up the proceedings, she said.

Others voiced concerns about child care; a singer-songwriter from El Segundo said the trial would take her away from her music.

Windham said that, at the trial’s end, the musician could write a “true crime musical.”

Still, he acknowledged the trial’s unusual length.

“You don’t really come to jury duty expecting a five-month trial,” he said. “But this is a very serious case, it’s a very complicated case, and there are many, many witnesses.”

By the end of the day, Windham had questioned 23 jurors and dismissed five of them. Neither prosecutors nor the defense team posed questions Wednesday.

Windham praised both the prosecution, led by John Lewin and Habib Balian, and Durst’s legal team.

“In my 36 years in the business,” he said, “these are the best trial lawyers I’ve ever seen.”

Windham said he expected it will take two weeks to pick a jury, with opening statements “hopefully” getting underway March 2.


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