Nelson Oliveira and Joe Erwin
New York Daily News
Robert Durst shot his best friend dead to shut her up before she could rat him out to the cops, a jury ruled Friday.
Durst, the eccentric Manhattan real estate heir and subject of a 2015 HBO crime documentary, was found guilty in the 2000 murder of longtime pal Susan Berman in Los Angeles.
Jurors believed the prosecution’s case that the tycoon killed his best friend to cover up the alleged murder of his wife in 1982.
Durst, 78, was not in the courtroom for the verdict. He was in isolation after being exposed to COVID-19.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and could face a life sentence. No date has been set for sentencing.
After announcing the guilty verdict, the forewoman said the jury believed that “Susan Berman was a witness to a crime and was intentionally killed” because of it.
The verdict ended an unusual trial that began in March 2020 and was interrupted for 14 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurors deliberated more than seven hours over parts of three days.
In the trial, the aging defendant took the witness stand in a wheelchair to testify in his own defense, claiming he was an aggressive husband at times but never killed his wife or anyone else.
That’s not how prosecutors saw it.
They said Durst fatally shot Berman inside her L.A. bungalow to guarantee her silence after she helped him cover up the 1982 murder of his first wife, Kathie Durst, whose body has never been found.
Berman’s death in December 2000 came after authorities relaunched an investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance.
“The justice system in Los Angeles has finally served the Berman family,” Kathie Durst’s family wrote in a statement after the verdict.
“It is now time for Westchester to do the same for the McCormack family and charge Durst for the murder of his wife, which occurred almost forty years ago.”
The McCormack family statement said “the evidence is overwhelming” that Durst killed Kathie.
Durst was never charged with any crimes related to his wife’s disappearance — but Los Angeles County prosecutors told the jury this summer that he killed the 29-year-old college student in their South Salem, New York, home, and “disposed of her body,” likely in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.
Durst apparently was upset at his wife’s growing independence from him, as she was just about to graduate from medical school, according to prosecutors.
The lead prosecutor, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian, said Durst enlisted Berman to help cover up his wife’s murder by asking her to post as Kathie and call in sick to her shift at Bronx Memorial Hospital.
Years later, Durst became concerned his Berman would speak up during the 2000 re-investigation and decided she had to die, Balian said.
The prosecutor also pointed jurors to an alleged confession Durst made outside a Harlem restaurant in 2014. That allegation came from a friend, Nick Chavin, who once told authorities that he had asked Durst about his possible involvement in Berman’s murder.
“And Bob said, ‘I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice,’” Chavin said in a 2017 testimony.
Durst was arrested in New Orleans in 2015 as he was trying to flee to Cuba.
The arrest came just before the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” an HBO documentary series that exposed new evidence in the case.
Durst — member of a prominent and wealthy New York City real estate development family — has long denied knowing what happened to his wife.
He was previously acquitted of murder in the 2011 killing of a Texas neighbor, Morris Black. But in that case, Durst admitted chopping up Black’s body and dumping it in Galveston Bay after shooting him during a self-defense struggle.
“It’s gruesome. It’s awful. I have to ask you, please, don’t let your emotions rule your logic,” defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin asked the jury during closing arguments last week.
DeGuerin acknowledged Durst might be a “sick old man” who is guilty of “atrocious” spousal abuse and the “gruesome” dismemberment of his neighbor, but the lawyer said the case was based on circumstantial evidence and insisted the state had not proved its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.
“You could see from Bob Durst’s 14 days on the witness stand that his compass doesn’t point north,” DeGuerin told the jury. “He’s unusual. And I don’t think you need a psychiatrist to tell you that.”
The jury didn’t buy it.
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