US real estate heir Durst guilty of murder

Robert Durst will likely die in prison following his conviction for murder.
Robert Durst will likely die in prison following his conviction for murder.

A California jury has found multimillionaire real estate heir Robert Durst guilty of murdering his best friend Susan Berman in 2000, the first homicide conviction for a man suspected of killing three people in three states over the past 39 years.

Durst, 78, will likely die in prison as the jury also found him guilty of the special circumstances of lying in wait and killing a witness, which carry a mandatory life sentence.

Superior Court Judge Mark Windham set a sentencing hearing for October 18.

The jury deliberated for about seven hours over three days. Durst was not present for the verdict because he was in isolation after having been exposed to COVID-19 in jail.

Los Angeles prosecutors called Durst a "narcissistic psychopath" who killed Berman in an attempt to cover up the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, in New York in 1982.

Durst was only on trial for killing Berman in California, but prosecutors argued he murdered three people: his missing wife, Berman and a neighbour in Texas who discovered his identity when Durst was hiding from the law.

Despite long being a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, a 29-year-old medical student, Durst was never charged. Prosecutors said he killed her then decided to kill Berman 18 years later because she had told others she helped Durst cover up the crime.

Defence lawyers portrayed Durst, a frail cancer survivor, as a "sick old man" and noted prosecutors, who cross-examined him for nine days, were unable to produce forensic evidence linking Durst to the murder of Berman, 55, who was shot in the back of her head at her Beverly Hills home.

The trial came six years after Durst's apparent confession in the HBO documentary series The Jinx, in which Durst was caught on a hot microphone saying to himself, "What the hell did I do? ... Killed them all, of course."

In a trial spread over a year-and-a-half, partly due to the pandemic, prosecutors presented circumstantial evidence pointing to Durst, who testified he discovered Berman's murdered body when he visited her but did not call police.

The prosecution also delved into the 2001 death and dismemberment of Morris Black, who was Durst's neighbour in Galveston, Texas. A Galveston jury acquitted Durst of murder, even though Durst admitted he chopped up Black's body and dumped it in Galveston Bay.

In Texas, and again in the Los Angeles trial, Durst testified that Black pulled a gun on him and was shot accidentally when the men wrestled over the firearm in Durst's apartment.

The California prosecutors argued Durst murdered Black because Black discovered Durst's identity, and Durst feared Black would turn him in.

At the time Durst was using an assumed name and disguising himself as a mute woman because he feared he might be arrested by New York investigators who had reopened the case of his missing wife.

In the deaths of Black and Berman, Durst said he at first tried to call the 911 but later decided against it, fearing nobody would believe he was not guilty.

Durst testified from a wheelchair. His voice weakened by oesophageal cancer, he sounded different from the confident man in The Jinx.

The defence attempted to cast doubt on the "killed them all" audio by arguing it was edited. Durst said the mic failed to record him say "They'll all think I" before uttering "killed them all".

Durst is the grandson of Joseph Durst and son of Seymour Durst, who built The Durst Organisation into one of New York City's premier real estate companies.

Durst long ago left the company, now run by his estranged brother Douglas Durst, who testified at trial and said of his sibling: "He'd like to murder me."

Australian Associated Press