After extraordinary delay, Robert Durst’s murder trial to resume amid jury questions

Real estate heir Robert Durst
Real estate heir Robert Durst at his murder trial in Los Angeles in March 2020.
(Etienne Laurent / Pool Photo)

It took nearly 15 years for police to arrest New York real estate heir Robert Durst in the killing of his best friend and five more to bring him to trial. After just two days of testimony, jurors were sent home in March 2020 when the coronavirus closed courthouses.

On Monday, more than 14 months later, the jury is returning to Los Angeles County Superior Court to see if they can complete their assignment. If so, it could be a first for the U.S. legal system.

Durst’s lawyers say the length of the stoppage is unprecedented. They have repeatedly sought a mistrial on the grounds that the delay has harmed his chance of a fair trial in the country’s highest-profile case to be postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Durst, 78, has pleaded not guilty to murdering his friend Susan Berman, who was shot in the back of the head in her L.A. home in December 2000. Prosecutors say he silenced Berman before she could tell police that she helped him cover up the killing of his wife, Kathie, in New York in 1982.

Judge Mark Windham has called back the panel of 23 jurors, including 11 alternates, and plans to question them Monday to see if they can go forward with the case.

The defense has submitted a list of proposed questions, including whether jurors read or heard about the case during the break and remain impartial, and whether COVID-19 altered their lives in a way that prevents them from serving an additional four to five months.

Five years after HBO’s ‘The Jinx,’ Durst will stand trial in the 2000 killing of Susan Berman at her Benedict Canyon home.

The pandemic has disrupted courts nationwide, leading to delays and proceedings via videoconference rather than in person in many instances. Many defendants awaiting trial were freed because of concerns they would get infected by the coronavirus in jail.

What makes the Durst case so unusual is that it was halted after the jury — winnowed from more than 400 people — had already been sworn in and heard four days of opening statements and two days of testimony.

Defense lawyer Chip Lewis said Durst’s legal team had done extensive research and couldn’t find trial delays even close to that imposed on this case.

Scott Sundby, a University of Miami law professor, said he looked into trials that were halted because of earthquakes and hurricanes and hadn’t discovered a break as long as in the Durst case.

With jury selection set to begin in Los Angeles on Wednesday, the Robert Durst murder trial is expected to last up to five months, pitting a lineup of elite Los Angeles County prosecutors against the high-end Houston legal team that helped Durst beat a murder charge in Texas in 2003.

The length of the pause itself is less likely to be a problem because it was not anyone’s fault, Sundby said.

But he said Windham, who is probably eager to keep the jury intact, would have to be vigilant when screening jurors to make sure they hadn’t been tainted in any way that could violate Durst’s right to a fair trial.

“The motivation is most likely that ‘we spent a lot of time and effort picking a jury and unless I become convinced that this jury cannot be fair, we’re not going to go through that process again,’” Sundby said.

Durst, an eccentric worth more than an estimated $100 million, is being held without bail. He is charged only with Berman’s killing, but prosecutors are using his wife’s disappearance and neighbor’s slaying in Texas to build their case against him.

How the jury was selected in the millionaire’s murder trial.

He has long been suspected of killing his wife although he’s never been charged, has denied any role in her disappearance and her body has never been found.

Berman, a Las Vegas mobster’s daughter who met Durst at UCLA, served as his unofficial spokeswoman when Kathie Durst vanished. Prosecutors allege that she helped him cover his tracks.

But after New York investigators announced in 2000 that they had reopened the case, authorities say Berman told Durst she was going to speak with them about what she knew. She was dead two months later.

Nine months after Berman was killed, Durst fatally shot his neighbor Morris Black in a Galveston, Texas, boarding house, where he had gone into hiding disguised as a mute woman.

Prosecutors say he killed Black because the neighbor discovered his real identity.

Durst was acquitted in Black’s slaying after testifying that Black had pulled a pistol on him and was shot as they struggled for the weapon. He said he panicked and butchered the man’s body and tossed it into Galveston Bay.

During opening statements in Los Angeles, defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, who defended Durst in Texas, said Durst did not kill Berman and does not know who did. But he said his client had found her body, panicked and bolted.

Durst sent police a cryptic note alerting them to a “cadaver” in the house to ensure she would be found, DeGuerin said. Durst had long denied writing the note.

It was in the dramatic final moments of the HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” that New York real estate scion Robert Durst is heard mumbling: “Killed them all, of course.”

He was arrested in New Orleans in 2015 on the eve of the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” an HBO documentary in which he was confronted with the cadaver note and a letter he once sent Berman with similar block print handwriting and the city of Beverly Hills misspelled “Beverley.”

Before being shown the letter he had written to Berman, Durst told the filmmakers that only the killer could have written the cadaver note.

After the moment on camera, he was caught on a hot mic saying to himself in a bathroom: “You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

If the judge lets the case continue with the current jury, lawyers will be allowed to refresh the panel’s memories by presenting opening statements of up to two hours.

On Sept. 30, 2001, a 13-year-old boy fishing in Galveston Bay in Texas spotted something terrible out in the water.

During the testimony jurors previously heard, several witnesses, including Thomas Durst, another heir to the family’s New York commercial real estate empire, said he was terrified of his brother. Others testified that Kathie Durst was afraid of her husband.

Sundby said one of the main concerns for defense lawyers would be whether any of the prosecution’s evidence at the start of trial solidified an impression in jurors’ minds during the intervening months.

“If the last impression is that his deceased wife was walking around scared of him,” Sundby said, “I would be arguing strongly that that kind of unconscious view of the defendant was allowed to sit and become concrete over the last 14 months.”