Robert Durst may not go on trial for the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman any time soon as he now faces both state and federal weapons charges in New Orleans. California prosecutors have said they’re prepared to wait.
The 71-year-old real estate heir, who in an HBO documentary seemed to admit having killed Berman, as well as his first wife, appeared before a Louisiana state judge Thursday and pleaded not guilty to weapons charges that could send him to prison for as long as 20 years.
“We are awaiting the outcome of his case in Louisiana,” Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney who charged Durst with first-degree murder, said on Wednesday.
Durst was arrested in New Orleans on March 14, the day before HBO showed the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” in which he is heard talking to himself while in a bathroom and still wearing a microphone. “Killed them all,” he said, apparently in reference to his wife, Berman, and a man in Galveston, Texas.
Los Angeles prosecutors may be happy to have Durst behind bars in Louisiana, possibly for the rest of his life, rather than go through a high-profile murder trial, according to Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“Being a felon in possession of a firearm is one of the easiest cases to prove,” Levenson said in a phone interview. “You only need to show that he’s a felon and that he had a gun.”
Durst’s lawyer Dick DeGuerin has said he will ask the judge to throw out the evidence, including the gun, that investigators found when they searched Durst’s hotel room on the night of his arrest without a warrant. Durst is due back in court May 7 for a hearing on pre-trial motions.
Durst appeared frail and confused when he entered court Thursday, shackled and wearing a yellow jumpsuit.
He told one of three lawyers with him, “I didn’t hear,” when Judge Franz Zibilich asked for his plea. The attorney whispered to him.
“Oh, I am not guilty, your honor,” Durst then said.
“On both counts?”
Durst, indicted Wednesday, is accused of possession of a weapon by a felon and having a firearm together with marijuana.
The state gun and drug charges have maximum penalties as long as 20 and 10 years, respectively. He has also been charged with a weapons offense by federal prosecutors in New Orleans.
“I feel like we’re being tag-teamed,” DeGuerin said after the hearing. “I feel like we need to be in California where the main case is.”
Los Angeles prosecutors could argue they have priority because Durst was initially arrested by the FBI at their request, said Tom O’Brien, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who is now a lawyer with Paul Hastings LLP. Durst was rearrested, while in custody, on the local weapons charges two days later.
The Los Angeles district attorney may agree to let Louisiana proceed first on straightforward charges that will guarantee incarceration to gain more time to develop the homicide case, O’Brien said in an e-mail.
Berman was found dead in her home on Christmas Eve in 2000 with a gunshot wound to the head after police received a note saying there was a cadaver at her address.
Berman was killed shortly before she was scheduled to be interviewed by authorities about the 1982 disappearance of Kathleen Durst. Kathleen Durst has never been found.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles accused Durst of “lying in wait” and killing a witness to a crime.
In the HBO documentary, the filmmakers found a letter Durst sent to Berman that has her address written in the same style of block letters, and with the same misspelling of Beverly Hills as “Beverley Hills,” as the “cadaver” note sent to police.
Not everyone thinks the Los Angeles district attorney would be content to have Durst sit in a Louisiana jail rather than convict him for Berman’s murder. Prosecutors in California and Louisiana will coordinate to bring him to Los Angeles eventually to stand trial, said Dmitry Gorin, a former senior deputy district attorney now with Eisner Gorin LLP.
“It’s inconceivable that they would charge him with murder if they weren’t willing to bring him to trial,” Gorin said in a telephone interview.
The case is People v. Durst, SA089983, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County.