A Los Angeles County judge on Friday cleared the way for prosecutors to begin calling witnesses next month in their murder case against New York real estate heir Robert Durst, saying that the identity of one witness would remain confidential for several more weeks because of concerns over his safety.
The unusual decision to temporarily keep the man’s name from the defense came after prosecutors argued that Durst — who is accused in the execution-style slaying of his friend Susan Berman — has access to massive amounts of money and a history of killing people he felt could incriminate him for past crimes.
“That man kills witnesses. That’s what he does,” Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin said, looking at Durst. “When pushed into a corner, he murders people.”
Durst, dressed in a blue shirt and seated in a wheelchair, laughed to himself and smiled. A few minutes later, the 73-year-old backed up his wheelchair to face a crowd of reporters. His eyes panned the crowd twice. As a bailiff walked toward him, he turned around.
Durst was arrested in Berman’s killing in March 2015 — one day before the last episode of a six-part HBO documentary series about him aired. During the final episode of “The Jinx,” the real estate scion is captured on a hot microphone muttering: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Many interpreted his whispers as a confession to the separate killings of three people: his first wife, Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982; a neighbor in Texas who was shot in 2001; and Berman, his confidante who was shot in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000.
Durst was ultimately acquitted of murder in the Texas case, saying he shot Morris Black in self-defense before chopping up the man’s body and throwing the pieces into Galveston Bay.
At Friday’s hearing, Lewin said the prosecution has evidence from the Galveston killing that either wasn’t presented at trial or could’ve been presented in a more persuasive manner.
“It was not self-defense,” Lewin said without elaborating. “It was murder.”
Again, Durst smiled.
Dick DeGuerin — Durst’s lead attorney, who also defended him in the Galveston killing — bristled at the prosecutor’s reference to the old case.
“There’s such a thing as double jeopardy,” he said, adding that a jury “very clearly” decided Durst wasn’t guilty.
Toward the end of Friday’s hearing, Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham said he would allow the early testimony of two prosecution witnesses at a hearing on Feb. 14. Both witnesses, Windham noted, fit a criterion for allowing someone to testify in a case before a trial or preliminary hearing begins: They are 65 or older. Prosecutors had argued that they wanted to take the testimony now in case the witnesses later died or were killed.
The judge said the prosecution had also presented evidence showing a “possible danger” to the witness whose identity remains a secret. Windham ruled that the district attorney’s office must reveal the identity of the secret witness to the defense 10 days before the questioning.
The second witness, Albert Kuperman, is expected to testify about a phone call he says he received in the winter of 1982 when he was dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Durst’s first wife had been enrolled. Prosecutors say Kuperman got a call from a woman identifying herself as Kathleen Durst despite evidence suggesting she was dead at the time of the call. Evidence will show, prosecutors say, that Susan Berman was the one who made the call.
In a recent court filing, prosecutors argue that Durst — whom they characterize as “a menace to society” — killed Berman because she knew incriminating information about his wife’s disappearance and that he killed his neighbor in Texas because the man knew Durst’s true identity. At the time of the Galveston killing, the real estate heir was living under a fake name, prosecutors said, because he feared that authorities investigating his wife’s disappearance might find him.
Durst has denied anything to do with his first wife’s disappearance or Berman’s killing.
Prosecutors say they plan to question one other secret witness at a later hearing. The security concerns are serious, Lewin argued in court, saying Durst is worth somewhere around $100 million.
Asked at a news conference after the hearing whether his client posed any danger, DeGuerin snapped back: “Of course not.”
At an earlier hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over the legality of Lewin’s jailhouse interview of Durst on March 15, 2015, which the defense characterizes as improper.
The judge said he will hold a hearing on its admissibility on Feb. 15.
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber