By Laith Agha
LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - A witness fearing retribution in the murder trial of wealthy real estate scion Robert Durst, whose ties to several slayings were chronicled in HBO's documentary "The Jinx," will be allowed to testify without revealing his or her identity, a Los Angeles judge ruled on Friday.
Durst, 73, who attended the hearing in a wheelchair, pleaded not guilty in November to first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of writer and longtime confidante Susan Berman in December 2000. Prosecutors say Durst killed Berman because of what she knew about his wife's death in New York two decades earlier.
The hearing in Los Angeles on Friday centered on a request by prosecutors to interview witnesses who are aged or in poor health by videotape so that their testimony is preserved should they die or become unable to appear in the event of a long trial. As part of the discussion, prosecutors also said that a witness feared retribution from Durst and had asked to testify without revealing his or her identity.
Defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin said that allowing testimony from witnesses who were concealing their identities presumes that Durst was indeed involved in his wife's disappearance, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's rule that defendants are presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty in court.
But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham agreed to allow both the videotaped interviews and the incognito testimony of the witness. A second witness is also expected to ask for such confidentiality.
"This is an opportunity to test the veracity of these witnesses," Windham said.
His lawyers argued that Durst was too old and frail to harm the two potential witnesses who are seeking to testify privately. But prosecutors disagreed, pointing to Durst's estimated net worth of $100 million as evidence that he could simply hire someone to harm the witnesses.
Durst was formally charged with the Berman murder a day after HBO aired the final episode of "The Jinx," in which Durst was recorded muttering to himself off-camera: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Berman, 55, was found shot dead in her Los Angeles home, reportedly execution style, not long after police in New York reopened their investigation into the 1982 disappearance and presumed killing of his wife, Kathleen.
Durst was questioned but never charged in that probe.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Diane Craft)