Reporter gets to cover 'secret witness' in Durst murder case

AP News
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Posted: Feb 15, 2017 5:30 PM
Reporter gets to cover 'secret witness' in Durst murder case

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles judge denied a request Wednesday to prevent a New York Times reporter from covering testimony against real estate heir Robert Durst.

Judge Mark Windham said defense lawyers had only presented speculation that reporter Charles Bagli, who has covered Durst for years, would later be called as a witness in the murder case and should be barred from covering testimony in a rare pretrial proceeding.

The defense said Bagli was friends with a "secret witness" to be called later and the journalist may be able to contradict his testimony if later called as a witness. The defense didn't want the unidentified witness to influence Bagli's memory of previous interviews he conducted with the subject.

The testimony comes with Durst facing a murder charge in the 2000 killing of his best friend, Susan Berman. He has pleaded not guilty and prosecutors have yet to present evidence to persuade a judge that he should face trial on the charge.

But prosecutors worried about the safety of some witnesses and the longevity of others are recording testimony now to preserve it if something happens to them. The so-called secret witness is one of those to be recorded on video in case he's dead or unable to testify at trial.

Durst, 73, has asserted his innocence and defense lawyers have said it's ridiculous to suggest the frail jail inmate is capable of having anyone killed. But Deputy District Attorney John Lewin has said that with Durst's estimated $100 million fortune, he poses a serious threat to witnesses.

Bagli has written dozens of stories related to Durst's suspected ties to his wife's mysterious 1982 disappearance in New York and Berman's death, as well as his killing of a neighbor in Texas in 2001. Durst was acquitted of murder in that case after testifying that he shot the man in self-defense and then panicked and chopped up the body and dumped it in Galveston Bay.

A lawyer for the Times argued that the effort to boot Bagli from the courtroom raised "huge First Amendment issues," and said the reporter was protected by a state law that shields journalists from testifying in court.

"It would be dangerous and, frankly, unprecedented for there to be a decision here that a reporter who interviewed a trial witness be excluded from covering that witness's testimony," attorney Theodore Kider said. He added that reporters who covered something long enough would eventually be prevented from doing their jobs.

A New York Times spokeswoman said the newspaper was pleased with the ruling.

Prosecutors contend that Durst killed Berman because he thought she was going to talk to police about the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen Durst, who has never been found.