LOS ANGELES – Robert Durst is a champion at running from responsibility, covering his tracks with lies so numerous he couldn't keep them all straight, a prosecutor said Wednesday during closing arguments in the New York real estate heir's murder trial.
Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian told jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court that Durst had admitted lying on the witness stand during the trial, telling a “fantastical tale” to mislead or deflect from his guilt.
“This was an Olympic year,” Balian said. “If there was an event for running from the truth, he’d be on the top of the podium.”
Durst, 78, who is ailing and seated in a wheelchair, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the point-blank shooting of his best friend, Susan Berman, at her Los Angeles home in December 2000.
Prosecutors said Durst killed her before she could speak to authorities about how she provided a phony alibi when his wife vanished in New York in 1982.
Durst's lawyers are scheduled to present their closing argument Thursday. Defense attorney Chip Lewis said they plan to poke holes in the prosecution's case and challenge what he said has played like bad film.
"They failed to deliver the required evidence to support their script/theory,” Lewis said. “We do not convict folks based on made-for-TV movies.”
Balian told jurors — who began their service 18 months ago before the coronavirus pandemic delayed the case for more than a year — that after decades of investigations, news articles, a feature film and documentary, they had the best vantage point for determining what Durst had done.
Although it took nearly four months to present evidence of three murders to prove one, Balian said it was a simple case. It comes down to Durst, a multimillionaire son of commercial real estate kingpin, killing witnesses to cover up his wife's slaying, Balian said.
It all arose from marriage gone bad, Balian said. As Kathie Durst, nine years his junior and from a working-class family, began to blossom and pursue a career as a doctor, her husband became increasingly controlling and abusive.
“She met this man she thought was her Prince Charming,” Balian said. “She started down this road with him. Unbeknownst to her, it turned out to be a very treacherous path.”
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, became best friends with Durst at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1960s.
When Kathie Durst disappeared, Berman impersonated her to call in sick at the medical school she was attending, Balian said.
“They embarked on a campaign to obscure the truth, to lead the investigation in a completely wrong direction,” Balian said.
They would have gotten away with it, Balian said, but then authorities reopened the investigation into Kathie's disappearance and Berman told Robert Durst she planned to speak with police.
“She helped him get out of that jam," Balian said. "The thing she got was ... a bullet in the back of her head. By her best friend.”
After Berman was killed, Durst returned to Galveston, Texas, where he had been living under an alias while hiding out from New York authorities reinvestigating his wife's death.
He killed a neighbor, Morris Black, who discovered his true identity. Durst was acquitted of murder at trial in 2003 after testifying that Black pulled a gun on him and was killed in the struggle for the weapon. But Los Angeles prosecutors were able to present evidence that he murdered Black to support their witness-killing theory.
“The defendant runs and hides and flees to Galveston, and there's only one person who can lead the police to his doorstep, who knows who he is, who knows about the reinvestigation,” Balian. “What does he do? Like Kathie, like Susan, he gets wiped off the face of this earth. Chopped up and thrown in Galveston Bay.”
Balian said the case could be summed up in the testimony of Nick Chavin, a mutual friend of Durst and Berman. Chavin said Durst was speaking about Berman when he told him in 2014: “It was her or me. I had no choice.”
“Either he's gonna kill her or he feared she was going to go to the authorities with what she knew,” Balian said.
Balian there was direct evidence of Durst's guilt and corroborating accounts from dozens of prosecution witnesses that was overwhelming in the face of Durst's unreliable testimony.
Balian likened Durst's lies to cockroaches found in soup. He showed a photo of a roach being plucked from a soup bowl and said jurors would never keep eating the soup after the bug was removed.
“It’s all infected with lies," Balian said. "This is what he served you. Literally you were served a bowl of cockroaches and you were told, ‘You pick out which ones are bad and which ones are good and toss them aside, but you can trust the rest of that soup. Go ahead and eat it up. Lap it up.’”