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Robert Durst sentenced to life in prison for murdering Susan Berman

Robert Durst, seated with defense attorney David Chesnoff, is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole
Robert Durst, seated with defense attorney David Chesnoff, is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole on Thursday for the murder of Susan Berman.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As far as Sareb Kaufman is concerned, no punishment Robert Durst could face will equal the suffering Kaufman has already endured.

Shaking slightly as he spoke in a Los Angeles courtroom, Kaufman said his stepmother, Susan Berman, wasn’t the only person who died when Durst executed her inside her Benedict Canyon home two decades ago. Since then, Kaufman said, the all-consuming grief of Berman’s death has cost him relationships, job opportunities and any semblance of a normal life.

“I have not had one day off from the absolute destruction, grief or pain that this has caused me,” he said. “I go to sleep angry, wake up angry. I eat, sleep and drink angry.”

Robert Durst listens during sentencing at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles.
Robert Durst listens during sentencing at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
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After a months-long trial that marked the end of a four-decade legal saga, Durst was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for shooting his longtime confidant in the back of the head in 2000.

Durst’s sentence was effectively set when a jury convicted him of murder last month and upheld the special-circumstances allegation that the 78-year-old real estate scion shot his friend in order to cover up the 1982 disappearance and presumed death of his first wife, Kathie, in New York. Under California law, Durst could only be sentenced to life without parole or sent to death row, and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office chose not to seek the death penalty.

With Durst’s punishment a foregone conclusion, Berman’s loved ones and prosecutors used the final phase of the trial Thursday to confront the real estate heir and urge him to finally answer the question many have been asking since 1982 — where is Kathie McCormack?

Susan Berman with her friend Robert Durst.
(HBO)

“Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting them know where to find Kathie,” Kaufman said, demanding Durst offer his first wife’s family closure.

But Durst sat in silence throughout the 90-minute proceeding, eyes locked on the front of the courtroom and away from Berman’s loved ones. After a motion seeking a mistrial was swiftly knocked down by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham, Durst’s attorneys said they would appeal his conviction and declined to speak to reporters outside the courthouse.

The sentencing followed a five-month trial that saw Durst take the witness stand for 15 days after prosecutors spent weeks arguing that he was guilty of not just Berman’s murder, but also his wife’s disappearance and the 2001 shooting death of his neighbor Morris Black in Texas.

Four of Berman’s relatives delivered victim impact statements inside a packed courtroom at the Airport Courthouse. They described a vibrant, talented writer whose life was “savagely” cut down at the age of 55, leaving their own existences wrecked.

Deni Marcus, 63, second cousin of Susan Berman, gives her statement to the court before the sentencing.
Deni Marcus, 63, second cousin of Susan Berman, gives her statement to the court before the sentencing.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“This morning … I told her she could rest,” said her cousin Davey Berman, who broke down in tears almost as soon as he approached the lectern. “That justice has been done.”

Still, others who who loved Berman acknowledged her closeness with her killer, even as they expressed frustrations with him.

“Hate was never in my wheelhouse or hers, and for that reason I will never hate Bobby, because she loved him,” said Deni Marcus, a cousin of Berman.

Andrew Jarecki, the filmmaker behind the HBO documentary “The Jinx,” which reinvigorated national interest in Durst as well as Berman’s murder, and several jurors from the trial were also in attendance Thursday.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin argues against the possibility of a retrial during the sentencing of Robert Durst.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Despite pleas from their attorney earlier this week, the McCormack family was not allowed to offer statements at the hearing. But her family may yet get their chance to confront Durst.

Last week, sources told The Times and other news outlets that prosecutors in Westchester County, N.Y., would soon convene a grand jury to weigh charges against the real estate heir in McCormack’s disappearance. New York prosecutors have not responded to inquiries; but earlier this year, Westchester County Dist. Atty. Miriam Rocah said she would reopen an investigation into the case.

Prosecutors in Westchester County, N.Y., will convene a grand jury to weigh charges against real estate scion Robert Durst in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie.

Once a fixture of New York tabloids, Durst had faded from the nation’s consciousness until 2015, when he appeared in the HBO documentary. The series finale saw Durst confronted with evidence suggesting he wrote the “cadaver note” that led police to discover Berman’s body.

Apparently unaware he was still being recorded, Durst went to a bathroom and mumbled, “What the hell did I do? ... Killed them all, of course,” which many have taken to be a confession.

Raw audio played at trial showed that some time elapsed between the two comments, and defense attorney Dick DeGuerin has said the phrases were taken out of context and deceptively edited. But on Thursday, even Windham referred to the comments as a “confession,” describing it as one of several times Durst admitted to the crime.

Defense attorney David Chesnoff, left, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian speak to each other
Defense attorney David Chesnoff, left, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian speak to each other during Robert Durst’s sentencing.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles police arrested Durst in a New Orleans hotel in 2015, shortly before “The Jinx” finale aired. It took nearly two years for Durst to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom after authorities in Louisiana filed charges against him when marijuana and a handgun were found in his hotel room.

Prosecutors then had to archive the testimony of a number of older witnesses in case they died before Durst’s trial, sparking a lengthy series of pretrial hearings in 2017. Opening statements in the case didn’t begin until March 2020, and the trial was suspended after two days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berman, a self-described “mafia princess” whose father was enmeshed in Las Vegas organized crime, met Durst on the UCLA campus in the 1960s. The two quickly bonded over shared grief — Durst’s mother died when he was very young, and Berman lost her father to cancer when she was 12.

The friendship would rapidly evolve, and the two would come to rely on each other in times of need. Berman acted as Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman when tabloids began circling him after McCormack’s disappearance. Two years later, it was Durst who walked Berman down the aisle at her wedding.

In later years, when Berman’s writing career was floundering and she found herself in dire financial straits, Durst began lending her money, even helping finance a Broadway play she was trying to produce that never made it to stage.

Robert Durst with wife Kathie McCormack in a photo projected during the trial.
(Trial photo.)

During Thursday’s hearing, Berman’s relatives bemoaned that her life and legacy had become inextricably linked to McCormack’s disappearance. Prosecutors have long argued that Berman impersonated Kathie on a phone call to the medical school she was attending in 1982, obscuring the timeline of her disappearance. Durst, authorities have said, killed Berman in 2000 because she was going to cooperate with a renewed investigation into McCormack’s disappearance.

On Thursday, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin said he did not believe Berman willingly aided Durst in covering up a murder. Rather, he said, Durst trapped her in a deception that ultimately cost the writer her life.

“Susan Berman did not cover up what was described to her as a murder... Robert Durst likely said to her that this was some kind of accident and Susan Berman, loving Bob … and wanting to believe and trust him, decided to help,” Lewin said. “In the end, she made the mistake that many other people did in Robert Durst’s life... she believed in him.”


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