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Prosecutors and lawyers for Robert Durst wrangle over records, jailhouse interview in L.A. murder case

New York real estate scion Robert Durst appears in the Airport Branch courthouse in Los Angeles for a hearing Wednesday. Durst is accused in the December 2000 fatal shooting of his friend, Susan Berman, in her Benedict Canyon home. He has pleaded not guilty.
(Jae C. Hong / Getty Images)

Los Angeles prosecutors and attorneys for New York real estate scion Robert Durst clashed in court on Wednesday over evidence, witnesses and the legality of a prosecutor’s jailhouse interrogation of the idiosyncratic millionaire.

The back-and-forth served as a preview of what’s to come as the celebrity murder case pitting veteran prosecutors against a high-powered legal defense team prepares for trial.

As a bailiff pushed Durst, 73, into the Los Angeles courtroom in a wheelchair, the defendant craned his neck and locked eyes with several reporters in the packed audience.

When prosecutors spoke, Durst — who is accused in the execution-style slaying of his friend, writer Susan Berman — stared intently, often blinking, squinting and gripping the defense table in front of him. At one point, Durst, who is thin and appears frail, wheeled himself backward for a better view, bumping into one of his attorneys. He turned around slowly and let out a croaky, “Sorry.”

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Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham appointed a special monitor to search boxes of evidence seized in the case and separate out any attorney-client privilege material. His ruling, Windham said, was meant to protect Durst’s rights.

Prosecutors had asked Windham to assign the special monitor to comb through evidence collected from three different places — Durst’s Houston home, the New Orleans hotel where he was arrested and the home of a friend who stored some of Durst’s belongings. Prosecutors said the material was seized properly but asked the judge to assign a special monitor “in an abundance of caution.”

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin appears in Los Angeles court with his client, real estate heir Robert Durst, who is charged with murder.

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin appears in Los Angeles court with his client, real estate heir Robert Durst, who is charged with murder.

(Jae C. Hong-pool/Getty Images)

Durst’s attorneys filed a response, arguing that much of the evidence had, in fact, been collected improperly and denouncing a veteran prosecutor on the case for conducting an “improper and deceptive” interrogation of Durst in New Orleans. They said Durst was “frail, afraid and quite disoriented” at the time of the questioning.

On Friday, the district attorney’s office filed a transcript of the March 15, 2015, jailhouse interview in Los Angeles County Superior Court. During the sometimes rambling interrogation, Durst said he wanted to “stay away” from talking about Berman’s killing. He also said he was high on meth during interviews he gave for the HBO documentary series “The Jinx.”

Durst’s arrest last year in connection with the murder case came a day before the finale of the six-part documentary aired. During the last episode, Durst mutters to himself in the bathroom: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Many people took the audio, captured on a hot mic, as a confession to three killings: those of his long-vanished wife, a neighbor in Texas and Berman, his close friend who was shot in 2000 in her Benedict Canyon home. In the Texas case — which ended in Durst’s acquittal — he admitted to shooting his neighbor, saying he acted in self-defense before chopping the man up and dumping him in Galveston Bay.

Durst’s attorneys argue that the warrant issued last year for Durst’s arrest in Berman’s killing was “promoted by a television show, not probable cause.” Prosecutors don’t deny that “The Jinx” played a role in the timing of his arrest, but also say the arrest warrant was “fully supported by probable cause.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, the judge did not rule on the legality of the evidence seizure or the interrogation, but prosecutors and attorneys for Durst took jabs at one another over the interview conducted last year by Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin. Lewin expressed particular disdain for the defense’s allegations that his interrogation of Durst was improper.

“I’m not going to pull punches here,” the prosecutor said. “Their motion wasn’t true; it wasn’t accurate. And that wasn’t an accident.”

One of Durst’s attorneys scoffed.

Earlier in the hearing, another of Durst’s attorneys, Dick DeGuerin, told the judge he was frustrated that the prosecution had publicly filed evidence, including the transcript of Durst’s interrogation. At a brief news conference after the hearing, DeGuerin declined to answer most questions, saying, “I’m not going to try the case in the press, like they’re doing.” Asked about Durst’s health, he described his client as “pretty strong.”

Windham, the judge, also set a conditional hearing for Feb. 14, where two witnesses are expected to testify. Lewin characterized the hearing as a precautionary measure intended to get testimony on the record as soon as possible in a case that could take a long time to go to trial.

One of the witnesses — a man who told police he spoke with Durst’s long-vanished wife around the time of her disappearance — is 86. The identity of the second witness hasn’t yet been revealed by the prosecution, and Lewin told the judge that some witnesses in the case are “understandably concerned about their safety.”

Durst’s attorneys bristled at the claim, reminding the judge that their client uses a wheelchair.

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber


UPDATES:

6:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background about the case.

This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m.


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