Robert Durst will live out the rest of his days in a California prison for killing his longtime confidante, Susan Berman, inside her Los Angeles home in 2000, a judge ordered Thursday.
Durst’s sentence was effectively set last month as soon as a jury convicted him of murdering Berman and upheld the special circumstances allegation that the 78-year-old real estate scion shot his friend in order to cover up the killing of his first wife, Kathie, in New York in 1982. Under California law, defendants convicted of special circumstances murder can only be sentenced to life without parole or execution, and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office chose not to seek the death penalty against Durst.
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 1982 disappearance and the 2001 shooting death of his Texas neighbor, Morris Black.
Several of Berman’s relatives, including her daughter and stepson, delivered victim impact statements at the hearing inside a packed courtroom inside the Airport Courthouse on Thursday afternoon. They described a vibrant, talented writer whose life was “savagely” cut short at the age of 55 by Durst, leaving their own existences wrecked.
“I have not had one day off from the absolute destruction, grief or pain, that this has caused me,” said her stepson, Sareb Kaufman. “I got to sleep angry, wake up angry, I eat, sleep and drink angry.”
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.
Despite pleas from their attorney earlier this week, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham did not allow family of Kathie McCormack, Durst’s ex-wife, to offer a statement. Her disappearance hung over the proceedings though, as several people called on Durst to let the McCormack family know where Kathie’s body was buried in the 1980s.
“Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting them know where to find Kathie,” said Sareb Kaufman, Berman’s stepson.
Andrew Jarecki, the filmmaker behind the HBO documentary “The Jinx” that reinvigorated national interest in Durst as well as Berman’s murder, and several jurors from the trial were also in attendance Thursday. Nick Chavin, who testified that Durst admitted to the murder during a conversation in 2014, was also in the gallery.
Durst did not speak during the hearing and the defense offered no mitigation. Durst kept his eyes straight ahead the entire time.
Despite the life sentence, Durst’s four-decade legal saga is not over. 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 his first wife’s vanishing. New York prosecutors have not responded to inquiries about the case, but Westchester County Dist. Atty. Miriam Rocah announced she would reopen an investigation into the case earlier this year.
Durst has denied all wrongdoing in both cases and his lead defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, has said he will appeal his conviction in Los Angeles. DeGuerin filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the evidence at trial was deficient, but Windham swiftly dismissed the filing on Thursday.
Once a fixture of New York tabloids, Durst had faded from the nation’s consciousness until 2015, when he appeared in an HBO documentary series chronicling his life. Titled “The Jinx,” the series’ final scene saw Durst confronted with evidence suggesting he wrote the so-called “cadaver note” that led police to discover Berman’s body. Apparently unaware he was still being recorded, Durst went to a bathroom and mumbled the phrases “What the hell did I do? … Killed them all, of course,” which many have taken to be a confession.
Raw audio played at his trial, however, showed that some time elapsed between the two comments, and DeGuerin has said the phrases were taken out of context and deceptively edited.
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, including Chavin, in case they died before Durst’s trial, sparking a lengthy series of pretrial hearings. Opening statements in the case didn’t begin until March 2020, but the trial was suspended after two days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A self-described “mafia princess” whose father was enmeshed in Las Vegas organized crime, Berman 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 just 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 spokesperson when tabloids began circling him following 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 foundering 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.
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