Juror removed from Robert Durst murder trial as pandemic delay ends
Judge Mark Windham said he was removing the juror after she violated a court order not to read about the case during the lengthy break.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — A juror who read about the murder trial of multimillionaire Robert Durst during an unprecedented 14-month hiatus tied to the coronavirus pandemic was removed Tuesday as lawyers prepared to present a new round of opening statements.
Judge Mark Windham said he was removing the juror after she violated a court order not to read about the case during the lengthy break. Windham said the juror “took umbrage” that defense attorneys sought a mistrial because they felt the jurors wouldn’t be able to remember what they had heard over six days before the case was halted in March 2020.
Windham acknowledged the hiatus when he welcomed back jurors Monday and joked, “Where did we leave off?”
Whatever jurors may have forgotten about Durst — from the cloud of suspicion that has dogged him for decades to his claims of being trailed by bad luck — they will be reminded in a new round of opening arguments.
Durst, 78, an heir to a New York commercial real estate empire, is charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of his best friend, Susan Berman. She was shot in the back of the head at her Los Angeles home in December 2000.
Durst has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer said Durst didn’t kill her and doesn’t know who did, though he conceded last year that Durst found her body, putting him at the crime scene for the first time.
The unusual move to have a new round of opening statements is just one of several made to get the trial back on track without having to go through the painstaking process of picking a new jury.
The judge moved the case to a larger courtroom in Inglewood to accommodate the distancing needed to resume. Lawyers are spaced out in jury boxes on both sides of the courtroom, Plexiglas separates participants, and the 20 jurors, including eight alternates, are seated several seats and rows apart in the gallery. Only one journalist and one member of the public are allowed in the courtroom.
Durst, who is frail and sickly, returned to court Tuesday after being absent a day earlier. Dressed in a blue jacket, white shirt and tan pants, he was slumped in a wheelchair with a white mask and his gray hair disheveled. Durst, who has hearing aids, was following along with a tablet computer and real-time transcript as the judge reinstructed the jury.
The judge denied a defense request Monday to postpone the case further because Durst has bladder cancer, among other health problems that require hospitalization.
“The question isn’t whether he can endure the rigors of the trial,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said. “It’s whether he can survive at all.”
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin scoffed at claims Durst needed to be released to a hospital for treatment, saying he was getting high-quality care in jail.
“It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Lewin said. “The goal here is simply to have this trial go away.”
The sides have often gotten into heated arguments. Tensions exploded Monday into hollering and mutual accusations of lying over an evidence issue.
Durst’s lawyers have repeatedly sought a mistrial without success. They said the unprecedented delay would harm Durst’s ability to get a fair trial because jurors preoccupied with their own health and safety wouldn’t be able to pick up where they left off.
Windham denied each of those motions, saying he would bring the jury back to court when it was safe to do so.
Durst is only on trial in the killing of Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster whom he became friends with in college, but prosecutors are using the disappearance of his wife and the killing of an elderly neighbor in Texas to bolster their case.
He was arrested in New Orleans in 2015 on the eve of the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” an HBO documentary probing the three cases.
Berman served as Durst’s spokeswoman when his wife, Kathie, vanished in New York in 1982 and she helped him cover his tracks, prosecutors said.
Durst has long been suspected of killing his wife, whose body was never found, though he’s denied any role in her disappearance.
Prosecutors in Westchester County, New York, said Monday that they were reviewing the killing of Kathie Durst as one of several unsolved homicides.
When news broke in fall 2000 that the Westchester district attorney had reopened the case, prosecutors allege that Durst went into hiding in Texas and knocked off Berman before she could tell police she helped him cover up the killing.
Nine months later, he fatally shot his neighbor, Morris Black, in the Galveston, Texas, boarding house where they lived. He was acquitted in the case after he testified that he shot the man in self-defense and then in a panic cut up the man’s body and tossed it out to sea.
Los Angeles prosecutors said he killed Black because the older man had discovered his identity.
Durst’s lawyers have said he will testify again in this trial, a rare and risky move. Lewin, the prosecutor, said Monday that he was savoring the chance to cross-examine Durst.
“Get your popcorn and candy and a lounge chair because it’s going to be a while,” Lewin said.
Associated Press reporter Karen Matthews contributed to this story from New York.