LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) — Prosecutors have opened a court hearing in the murder case against New York real estate heir Robert Durst with photos of a letter directing them to the body of his slain friend.
A former Los Angeles police criminalist testified Monday that the letter was addressed to Beverly Hills police with the city’s name misspelled.
Monday’s hearing will determine if there is enough evidence to require Durst to stand trial for the December 2000 execution-style shooting death of a close friend in her Benedict Canyon home.
Prosecutors say Durst, who turned 75 last Thursday, killed Susan Berman because police in New York were about to question her in a new investigation into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst. Berman, 55, was found dead in her home on Christmas Eve 2000, and police say she was actually killed the day before.
Durst has pleaded not guilty, and with all that has emerged about him publicly from an HBO documentary series and from a string of unusual court hearings that have already taken place, it seems likely a Los Angeles Superior Court judge will order the case to proceed to trial.
Prosecutors have started recording testimony over the past year of older witnesses who might not be available if there is a trial. Some of the testimony includes damning evidence for Durst, who already has beaten a murder rap in an unrelated 2003 Texas killing.
One of his closest buddies, Nathan “Nick” Chavin, who was also close with Berman, testified Durst essentially admitted killing her, saying: “It was her or me, I had no choice.”
Chavin and other friends of Berman said she told them Durst had killed his first wife, Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982 in suburban New York and has never been found.
Berman, a writer and daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, said she helped Durst cover his tracks and told one friend that if anything ever happened to her, Durst would be the culprit.
And then there’s the documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” where he is heard muttering to himself on a live microphone: “You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
The challenge, however, will be getting any of that evidence before a jury.
“All kinds of evidentiary issues are going to be a battle in this case,” said Stanley Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School.
Durst’s defense team has fought or is expected to challenge every bit of evidence that implicates him, including Berman’s numerous hearsay statements to friends.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said Durst forfeited the right to challenge the hearsay statements because he killed Berman to prevent her from telling police what she knew about Kathleen Durst’s death.
“His attempt to prohibit the jury from learning what she said about him killing his wife is the most recent chapter in the defendant’s 36-year quest to evade responsibility for the heinous crimes he has committed,” Lewin said.
Berman’s death and a subsequent killing were motivated to cover-up his wife’s death, Lewin said. He intends to present evidence Durst roughed up his wife to show he tried to control her through fear and had the capacity for violence that escalated.
Goldman said the judge will have to evaluate the relevance of the evidence, whether hearsay is permissible and if the proof offered by testimony outweighs the bias it could create against Durst.
“He’s not being tried for killing his wife,” Goldman said. “But it’s part of the story. To flesh out the entire story without it, you don’t know the motive. How far does the judge let the prosecutor go back to prove that he did those things?”
For example, it’s not certain if the judge will allow evidence that Durst fatally shot and dismembered neighbor Morris Black, 71, in Galveston, Texas, nine months after Berman was killed.
Durst had moved there and posed as a mute woman to hide from investigators who wanted to talk to him after reopening the investigation into Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. He was acquitted of murder after testifying he killed Black in self-defense.
Durst was arrested in the Berman killing in 2015, just before the climactic final episode of “The Jinx” aired, in which he is heard muttering in a restroom about the killings.
He acknowledged in a three-hour interrogation by Lewin that he was in the process of fleeing.
“I was the worst fugitive the world has ever met,” Durst said, according to a transcript of the interview.
The defense also wants to bar those statements from trial.
He has been long estranged from his real-estate-rich family, known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers — including an investment in the World Trade Center. He split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle.
According to various media reports, Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family paid him $60 million to $65 million.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and wire services contributed to this report.)