Early testimony allowed from 2 witnesses in fugitive case

AP News
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Posted: Jan 06, 2017 6:43 PM
Early testimony allowed from 2 witnesses in fugitive case

LOS ANGELES (AP) — He's charged with murder and is looking frail in a wheelchair, but multimillionaire Robert Durst found himself laughing in a Los Angeles courtroom Friday during the most dramatic moment of a lengthy hearing mired in technical legal arguments.

The 73-year-old real estate heir chuckled as a prosecutor bit back at defense attorneys and laid out his chief theory in the case.

"That man kills witnesses," prosecutor John Lewin said. "When pushed into a corner, he murders people."

Durst has pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the 2000 fatal shooting of his best friend, Susan Berman. Prosecutors contend that Durst killed her because she was prepared to speak with police about his wife Kathleen Durst's 1982 disappearance in New York.

Lewin also pointed to the 2001 killing of Durst's elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Durst was acquitted of murder after testifying that he shot Morris Black in self-defense and then chopped up the body and dumped it in the sea.

Friday's hearing centered on whether prosecutors should be allowed to obtain early testimony from two witnesses in the Berman case because Durst poses a danger to them.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham ruled that the witnesses can give testimony in a public hearing on Feb. 14, finding that one of them is in possible danger. He ruled that the other witness can testify because of his advanced age of 85.

The defense will be able to cross-examine both witnesses. Their testimony will not be used if they are available to testify during Durst's trial, which has not been scheduled.

Durst's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said secrecy surrounding the two unidentified witnesses forces him to shadowbox.

He said allowing the early testimony over fears of witness danger would be to presume that Durst killed his wife and Berman, saying there's no evidence involving either.

Durst's attorneys also have argued that their client is harmless because he's frail and behind bars. They've accused the prosecution of trying to litigate the case in the news media.

"We're in a very complicated case with experienced lawyers who are not going to sit by and say it's OK to steamroll Mr. Durst," said David Chesnoff, another Durst attorney.

Prosecutors are taking an aggressive approach in publicly laying out their theory of the case before knowing if it will go to trial.

The defense has objected to some of the information prosecutors have revealed, including a transcript and recording of a nearly three-hour interrogation of Durst following his arrest in New Orleans in 2015.

One of the witnesses prosecutors will question on Feb. 14 is a doctor who may have been the last person to speak with Kathleen Durst. No charges have ever been brought in the suspected killing of Durst's first wife, whose body has not been found.

Lewin may also call witnesses to the killing of Durst's neighbor in Texas. Durst was acquitted of murder in the case but convicted of tampering with evidence and jumping bail.

Durst fled to Texas after learning the investigation into his wife's disappearance had been reopened in fall 2000, Lewin said.

Berman, who had served as an unofficial spokeswoman for Durst, was killed weeks later in her Los Angeles home before she was supposed to speak with police about that investigation.

Durst, an estranged member of a New York real estate empire, became a national name when HBO aired the documentary "The Jinx," which followed his life and cast suspicion on him involving several crimes.

FBI agents tracked Durst to a New Orleans hotel on the eve of the finale of "The Jinx." Durst was formally arrested early on the day of the broadcast, before viewers saw him in a washroom, still wearing a live microphone and muttering, "There it is. You're caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."