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Friend of Robert Durst admits conferring with wife while she was on witness stand was ‘inadvisable’

New York real estate scion Robert Durst appears in court earlier this year in Los Angeles. On Tuesday, prosecutors continued calling witnesses in Durst's murder case.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
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A New York labor lawyer and high school friend of Robert Durst said Tuesday that he probably erred in conferring with his wife before she backtracked on potentially damaging testimony she gave against the real estate heir who is accused of murder.

Stewart Altman, who has represented Durst over the years, said that in hindsight he realized it was “inadvisable” that he’d spoken to his wife, Emily, while she was still on the witness stand.

Durst is accused of shooting his longtime friend Susan Berman inside her Benedict Canyon home in 2000. Prosecutors maintain the slaying was meant to silence Berman for what she knew about the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s wife, Kathleen.

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Altman, 74, is the latest in a series of elderly witnesses called to the stand early to preserve their testimony, as the trial is unlikely to start until at least 2018.

The New York real estate scion, who has pleaded not guilty, was arrested in connection with Berman’s slaying on March 14, 2015 — a day before the finale of a six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx,” in which Durst mumbles, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

To many viewers, the comment, which was captured on a hot microphone while Durst was in the bathroom, seemed to be a confession to the killings of Berman, his long-vanished wife and Morris Black, his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Durst, now 74, admitted to authorities that he shot Black and dismembered his body before dumping the parts into Galveston Bay. At trial, he argued that the gun had accidentally gone off while he was defending himself in a struggle. Durst was ultimately acquitted.

Though Altman — who went to high school with Durst in Scarsdale, N.Y. — wasn’t an official member of the Galveston trial team, he was Durst’s attorney at the time and often consulted with members of the team, according to testimony last month from his wife, Emily.

On the stand Tuesday, Altman was asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin if he was a neutral party, and he responded: “You realize that I am Robert Durst’s attorney? So, I’m not really unbiased, no.”

During the contentious hearing last month, Emily Altman gave dramatic testimony, saying that Durst once told her he’d been in Los Angeles around the time Berman was killed — a key piece of evidence, as investigators had long struggled to prove the defendant’s location and that he could have committed the crime. (Airline records show he left California the night before Berman’s body was found on Christmas Eve in 2000, but his flight left from San Francisco.)

But under questioning from a defense attorney the next day, she backtracked, saying she was unsure if Durst had been in L.A., or simply in California, or if she’d been told by Durst or her husband. Her change in testimony, she said, came after a phone conversation with her husband about what she’d said in court. Stewart, she said, had remembered it differently, saying that the information had likely come from him, not the defendant.

“He felt that I was incorrect,” Emily Altman said of her husband.

On Tuesday, Stewart Altman testified that he’d gotten a “hysterical” call from his wife after her initial testimony.

“She was crying; she was very upset,” he said. “And she said to me, ‘I’m so mixed up … I think I made a mistake…. I told Mr. Lewin Bob was in Los Angeles…. I told him that I found this out in 2000.’ ”

Altman said he told his wife it “couldn’t have happened like that,” because the couple had lost contact with Durst during that time. Altman said he told her that her recollection was mistaken. But he insisted that he never told his wife that he was the source of information about Durst’s whereabouts.

Altman was asked if it should have occurred to him — as a lawyer — that having such a conversation with his wife was inadvisable, and he responded, “20/20 hindsight, yes.”

Why had he done it, the prosecutor asked? “She was wrong,” Altman said.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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

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