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Lead prosecutor shares courtroom strategy that took down Robert Durst

ABC

(NEW YORK) -- New York real estate heir Robert Durst had spent decades evading the law. But in September 2021, the 78-year-old's long and strange run came to an end when he was convicted for the murder of his best friend more than 20 years ago.

The trial began in March 2020 but was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic after only two days of testimony. After a 14-month break, the trial resumed in May 2021.

Deputy District Attorney John Lewin was the lead prosecutor when Durst was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Susan Berman.

In December 2000, Berman was found dead at her Beverly Hills home. Shortly before her murder, police in Westchester, New York, had reopened an investigation into the 1982 disappearance of Durst's first wife and police in New York had intended to speak with Berman for the follow-up investigation.

Watch the full story on 20/20 tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

During the trial, prosecutors linked the evidence in Berman's murder to the 1982 disappearance of Durst's first wife, Kathie Durst, and the death of Durst's neighbor, Morris Black.

"So there's gonna be three killings that we are going to prove," said Lewin. "Everything starts with Kathie Durst's disappearance and death… and that after that he had to kill Susan Berman because he feared she was going to talk, and then he had to kill Morris Black because Morris Black knew who he was and was putting pressure on him."

Durst was acquitted of killing Black in 2003 after testifying he killed Black in self-defense. However, he pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence for dismembering Black's body and discarding the parts into Galveston Bay and jumping bail. He spent time behind bars for those crimes.

Durst has never been charged in his wife's disappearance, and her body was never found. He has adamantly denied being involved in her disappearance.

Lewin, who has been called, "The King of Cold Cases," went head-to-head with Durst, who testified in his own defense. On the stand, Lewin forced Durst to admit to lying under oath, as well as other admissions that destroyed his credibility.

"He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it, that's how he's lived his life," said Lewin.

Lewin said his strategy was to show the jury what made Durst “tick” and what motivated him to do the things he did.

"We were trying to get the jury to understand that this is a guy who doesn't believe that any rules apply to himself. That's just Bob Durst. He's the most self-involved person I've ever seen," said Lewin.

In 2015, an HBO documentary series called, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, followed Durst’s life and featured interviews with Durst himself where he spoke about Kathie Durst, Morris Black and Susan Berman.

Prosecutors used the raw footage turned over by the filmmakers as key evidence. Durst was arrested in New Orleans in 2015 on the eve of the airing of the final episode of The Jinx and his infamous confession when he was inadvertently caught on tape saying he "killed them all, of course."

"We were shocked that it takes Bob seeing it on TV to go, 'Uh-oh, I'm in trouble.' But that's what happened," said Lewin, who added that he believes Durst participated in the documentary for attention. "Bob's problem is that he loves the attention. Loves it. It was like a drug to him."

Durst argued the hot mic didn't catch his full remarks which he said were: "They'll all think I killed them all, of course."

Prosecutors countered Durst’s argument by playing the raw tape several times over in trial to demonstrate that there was no audio to support Durst’s allegations.

In the documentary, filmmakers also connected Durst to an anonymous note sent to police that was intended to direct them to Berman's body. During the trial, Durst admitted for the first time that he wrote the note and was also in Los Angeles at the time of Berman's death -- two things he had previously adamantly denied.

"This man murdered Susan Berman. He murdered her. Do not let this narcissistic psychopath get away with what he has done, what he did to Susan Berman," Lewin told the jurors during closing arguments.

The jury deliberated over the course of three days, but by the time they reached a decision, Durst had been exposed to COVID-19 and couldn't be in the courtroom to hear his guilty verdict.

"We are extremely gratified and appreciative of the verdict that the jury reached in this case. We think that it was supported by the evidence," said Lewin.

Durst was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in October 2021. Two weeks after his sentencing, he was indicted with the second-degree murder of Kathie Durst in New York.

While awaiting trial, Durst went into cardiac arrest and died in custody at the age of 78 in January 2022.

In California, when a defendant dies and the case is on appeal, the conviction is vacated. So despite being convicted by a jury, because of his death, Durst's conviction in the murder of Berman was vacated -- and no longer stands.

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