A witness who described herself as one of Robert Durst's "closest, dearest friends" testified Tuesday for the prosecution in his murder case, saying that she hoped he would be acquitted if innocent but that it would be wrong to "judge a person's entire life by one act."
Emily Altman cried and sighed, occasionally looking over at her friend at the defense table in a Los Angeles courtroom. The New York real estate tycoon — who is charged with murdering another friend — listened with little expression.
Durst, 74, is accused of shooting Susan Berman in the back of her head inside her Benedict Canyon home in 2000 — a killing, prosecutors say, meant to silence Berman for knowing too much about his past. Berman, one of Durst's best friends, had served as his spokeswoman to the media when his wife, Kathleen, disappeared in January 1982.
Altman testified that she was nervous. When a prosecutor asked whether she wanted Durst to be acquitted, she paused before responding.
"I hope that if Bob did not do what you're accusing him of," she said, "he's found not guilty."
"If he did do what he's charged with," the prosecutor then asked, "do you want him to be convicted?"
Altman closed her eyes and bit her lip, as if to hold back tears. "I guess if he's found guilty … then he's found guilty," she said, as her face reddened. She began to cry.
The prosecutor then asked whether Durst was one of her "closest, dearest friends?"
"Yes," Altman responded, glancing over at Durst, who was looking at her blandly.
If Durst killed Berman, the prosecutor asked, would you question how well you ever knew him?
"No," she responded. "I don't think you can judge a person's entire life by one act."
She testified that it would be incredibly difficult for her to believe that her friend — the man who came to the hospital the day her son was born and later became his godfather — had committed murder. She testified that Durst once bought her and her husband a four-door Lexus and paid for the three of them to take a trip to Puerto Rico. Altman described Durst as having a biting wit, but struggling to show emotion.
She recalled getting a phone call from Durst in 1982, saying that Kathleen had gone missing. He seemed concerned and sounded "really upset," Altman recalled. When a prosecutor asked if she remembered asking Durst during that phone call when he'd last seen his wife, Altman said she did not remember. The prosecutor then asked a variation of that question, to which Altman again replied she couldn't recall.
Durst turned to his attorney and croaked: "It's 36 years ago!"
Durst, who's unlikely to go to trial before 2018, has pleaded not guilty. A judge gave defense attorneys and prosecutors the go-ahead to collect early testimony from several witnesses, including Altman, 68.
Earlier in the week, attorneys argued whether it was proper for Altman to testify, considering that she's worked for many years as the sole employee in the law practice of husband Stewart, who has represented Durst over the years. Altman hired an attorney, who argued that her client should not have to testify about many conversations she'd had with Durst.
A judge ruled that Altman had to take the stand but said attorneys could make objections if question veered into topics they think are protected by attorney-client privilege. Stewart Altman — Durst's high school classmate from Scarsdale, N.Y. — is expected to testify at another hearing in August.
Altman was the second witness to take the stand for the prosecution this week.
On Monday, Peter Schwartz testified that Durst kicked him in the eye at a party in January 1981. Durst, who was wearing cowboy boots, swung with such force, Schwartz said, that he ended up in the hospital with a fractured orbital bone.
After Altman — who will resume testifying after the lunch break Tuesday — finishes on the stand, prosecutors plan to question Paul Kaufman, who dated Berman and Richard Markey, one of the last people to see Berman alive.
At a similar hearing in February, Nicholas Chavin, who was a friend of both Durst's and Berman's, testified that the defendant had once confessed to killing Berman. And at another hearing in April, Berman's friend Miriam Barnes testified that Berman, who seemed anxious, once told her she'd done a favor for Durst, but said she couldn't divulge any more details.
"If anything ever happens to me," Barnes recalled Berman saying, "Bobby did it."
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber
5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from Tuesday's testimony.