Judge who presided over Robert Durst trial discusses case 15 years later

Durst tried for murder of Galveston neighbor, Morris Black

By Debbie Strauss - Special Projects Producer, Elizabeth Hale - Associate Producer, News

In just a few weeks, real estate heir Robert Durst will go on trial for the nearly 20-year-old murder of his best friend Susan Berman.

Durst stood trial 15 years ago in Galveston for another murder. He was accused of shooting his Galveston neighbor, Morris Black, in the head, chopping up the body and tossing it into Galveston Bay.

The jury found Durst not guilty.

The judge in that case, Susan Criss, is no longer on the bench and is now allowed to freely discuss the case and her true thoughts about Bob Durst.

KPRC 2 Investigates sat down one on one in a Q&A with Criss.

Q: It has been about 15 years since the Robert Durst trial. You are no longer a judge. What have you been up to?

A: I have my own law office. I do criminal law and my partner does veterans' disability. We have offices in Galveston and in Bell County, which is in Central Texas.

Q: You presided over Durst's Galveston trial. Did you think he was guilty?

A: Yes, I did. I believe he did what he was accused of doing. I don't believe the state succeeded in proving it. Although there was enough circumstantial evidence for a jury to have found him guilty, the state did stumble a bit.

Q: Do you think Durst killed Morris Black?

A: I do believe he killed Morris Black. He actually didn't dispute that he killed Morris Black. He disputed how he killed him and why he killed him. He claimed that he shot him in self-defense. The question is: Where did he shoot him? What part of the body did he shoot him? Since the head is missing, I believe that he shot him in the head. I don’t believe that he shot him in self-defense though.

Q. What was Durst like during the trial? What was his personality?

A: Well, his personality was not the same throughout the process. We were in court for quite a long time. In the very beginning, he was quiet, and he began to act like he was insane. He would make noises like a pig. He would act strange. He would pretend to talk to invisible people at the table. At some point, he completely stopped that though and was -- was pretty quiet.

Q: Do you think the jurors thought he was truly guilty?

A: I think the jurors believed that he did kill Morris Black. Whether or not they believed he did it in self-defense, don't know. I think that some of them do believe that. Whether they all believe that, I don't know. I do believe that most of the jury didn't want to find him guilty, whereas a few of them did -- but did not (find him guilty).

Q: Why didn't they find him guilty?

A: I think that based on things that they've said since then in the interviews that I’ve watched them do throughout the years.

Q: Do you think they came in with that feeling, or do you think that's something they developed during the trial?

A: I think that at least one of them -- Chris Lovell -- came in there with the idea that he was not going to find him guilty, but I don't know what the others came in there thinking.

Q: Robert Durst appeared shocked when he heard the verdict, but Durst claims he wasn't surprised. Thoughts?

A: He did seem surprised. I've seen the video hundreds of times of when I read the verdict and he did seem visibly shocked. I think in his mind, he may believe now that he didn't think he was going to be found guilty, but he was quite surprised at that moment.

Q: How do you think the Galveston prosecutor did with the case?

A: I think the Galveston prosecutors did a lousy job. I think they didn't prepare. They didn't try hard enough and at some point in the process they gave up.

Q: Why do you think they didn't prepare?

A: I think they thought because of the heinous nature of the crime that it was just going to be what they call a "lay down" in criminal justice trials. I think they thought because he cut a body up, they were just going to walk in there and shock a jury and get a verdict of guilty, but they were going up against Dick DeGuerin and Mike Ramsey and Chip Lewis, and they should have prepared. No matter how strong you think your case is, you should come into the courtroom prepared and they did not. At some point, they realized that the other side was prepared, and I had the impression that they gave up.

Q: Do you think it was lack of preparation or lack of skill ... or both?

A: I think it's both.

Q: You ran into Mr. Durst at a Houston mall (The Galleria). Tell us about that.

A: Well, this was after he had gotten out on parole, and he was living in Houston. I wasn't really familiar with the terms of his parole, but I knew that he was living in Houston, and it was around Christmas time.

I wasn't expecting to be in Houston but I found myself there needing to kill some time before I had an evening event. I decided to go do some Christmas shopping at The Galleria mall.

I was walking down the mall, and all of a sudden, I saw him, and I realized that that's who it was, and it kind of shocked me. I knew he was out. I wasn't shocked that he was out, but I was shocked to run into him. And this is the first time that I would have been around him where he was not in custody with an armed guard next to him.

So he was walking towards me, and he didn't see me at first because he was talking on his cellphone and he had his head down. At some point, he looked up when he got closer, and he recognized me, and it startled him, and he dropped his phone, and the phone came apart. So he reached down to get it, and I was just on automatic pilot.

I really didn't know what was going to come out of my mouth, so I decided just to try to act normal, even though there's nothing normal about any part of this case. So I greeted him.

I said, "Hello, Bobby," or Bob. I think I said, "Hello Bob."

So he got his phone and he says, "I can't believe you're talking to me."

So I kind of didn't know what to say, so I said, "Well, you know this isn't personal," you know? There was nothing personal. I was doing my job, and I really didn't know what was going to come out of my mouth.

So he started talking about that he had just spoken to Dick and Chip Lewis and this was during the time when they were defending -- when Dick DeGuerin was defending Tom Delay for criminal charges -- and so he began talking about that, and I made some sort of comment, "Yeah, I’ve talked to them too."

Then I tried to figure out, well, how am I going to extricate myself from this very bizarre circumstance? So I made some sort of comment about -- I told him, "Happy holidays," and then so I started to walk off in the direction that I was which was away from him. I wanted so badly to turn around and look, but I thought that would not look cool. I would look nervous if I did that. So I walked a bit and went around a corner and then when I was around the corner out of sight, I began calling my mom and some of my close friends to tell them, "Oh my God, you're never going to believe who I just saw."

So when I said that to each of them, each of them guessed my ex-boyfriend or my ex-husband or something like that and I said, "No! It was Robert Durst." It was a bit of a surprise.

Q: Was that a violation of his parole? Did we later find out if that was or not?

A: I didn't know at the time what his conditions of parole were, so I didn't know that it was a violation. I had read that he couldn't come to Galveston, but I didn't know what the terms were about going around Houston and apparently, it was a violation. 

He was not supposed to leave his home, except under certain circumstances, which is to a doctor or places like that, that he had preapproval from his parole officer. So he was not supposed to be there, but I didn't know that.

Later, one of the prosecutors approached me and said they had heard that I ran into him and that they knew that that was a violation, so one of them reported it to the parole department, and ultimately I was contacted to be a witness about our encounter.

Q: Then he was taken off parole after that?

A: Well, close to this timeframe, he had violated his parole in a couple of other ways, including coming to Galveston and revisiting the scene where he had killed Morris Black, and he had been seen there so there was more than one violation. There was a hearing about this and they did not revoke his parole. I think they gave him a little bit of time in a halfway house or something. But DeGuerin successfully convinced the parole department not to revoke his parole based on those events.

Q: There's been talk for many years that Durst has killed several people, but never got caught. Finally, he was arrested in NOLA. What are your thoughts? Did you ever think that would happen?

A: You know, when I was initially looking at the evidence in this case, I was struck by the photographs of Morris Black's body that had been cut up, and I believed, based on what I saw, that this was a person who had done this before. He had developed enough skill to do this -- to be able to cut up a human body so cleanly and so neatly and with such knowledge of where to cut and how to cut through -- what bone and what muscle with what instrument. Generally speaking, I don’t think people who develop that skill just stop, so as long as he was out, I did think he would probably kill again.

I don't think he's the type of killer who's just always going out and hunting and looking for someone. That's not what he does. But he does find himself in circumstances where someone tells him no, or he proceeds them to be a threat to him, and I don't mean a physical threat but I mean a threat to his liberty, a threat to his lifestyle or what he wants to do -- someone who tells him no. In that circumstance, he will kill.

Q: What do you think about this upcoming trial in Los Angeles?

A: I think that there is a very strong case that they have in Los Angeles to prove that he killed Susan Berman. Part of it is based on, I think, the handwriting on the envelope. Part of it is based on slips that he's made and different things. I think they have a very good case.

I believe that the prosecutor out in LA knows the Robert Durst story backward and forwards. He's incredibly well prepared and I believe that he's going to find him guilty if he lives long enough to have a trial.

Q: So this LA district attorney is going to be prepared? He’s going to measure up?

A: Well, I believe that he is, and I believe -- I have great respect for DeGuerin and I would never begin to underestimate him. But I do believe that that prosecutor is already prepared to meet that challenge.

Q: Robert Durst is an interesting character. Do you believe he has Asperger's?

A: I don't. I had serious questions about whether he really had Asperger's, and I know that there's a whole lot of different ways that manifests itself. Everyone that has it doesn't behave exactly the same. And I’m not by any means an expert it, although I’m familiar with several people who have it.

I think that at the time of the trial, that was sort of new to most people and most people didn't understand it. So I think it was easy to use something like that because clearly there was something that existed with that name, and he clearly had bizarre behavior, and that was a label that they could put on it. I don't think he has the communication challenges that a person with Asperger's has to overcome.

Q: 15 years after the case, have things changed in Galveston? Has your life changed?

A: My life has changed in many, many ways. Galveston is an interested place in and of itself. We've had a storm of the century since this trial. There's always something going on here. I'm in a different career path now. I'm still involved in criminal justice, but I’m defending people accused of crime instead of being the judge or being the prosecutor. But I’m still in the criminal justice system, and it still fascinates me. Galveston, I think, has not really changed a lot.

Q: So with this trial, Galveston is who it is and proud of who it is?

A: Galveston will always have some degree of infamy based on one thing or another. For some reason, Galveston is the kind of place that draws characters, so (Durst is) not the first and he won't be the last, but he was probably one of the more unique ones.

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