Robert Durst, the eccentric outcast of a powerful New York real-estate dynasty, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole Thursday for the execution-style murder of his best friend Susan Berman more than two decades ago.
“There is sufficient evidence, indeed overwhelming evidence, of guilt,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham said during the afternoon hearing as Durst leaned back low in his wheelchair, his head cradled by the soft back.
“Susan Berman was an extraordinary human being. I personally wish I could have known her,” Windham said, calling her death an “awful, disturbing crime.”
The skyscraper scion, 78, was convicted of first-degree murder last month after prosecutors laid out a sprawling theory of the case that dated back to the mysterious 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen “Kathie” McCormack, in New York. They said Durst managed to sidestep suspicion in Kathie’s missing-persons case by drafting Berman to help cover his tracks. When investigators took another look at Kathie’s unsolved vanishing in 2000, Durst shot Berman at close range inside her Los Angeles bungalow to guarantee her silence, they said.
“Bob is a sociopath and narcissist in the extreme,” Berman’s surrogate son Sareb Kaufman said in his victim impact statement Thursday, calling her murder a “daily soul-consuming and crushing experience.”
“You have murdered the only people you have ever inspired to love you,” he said, addressing Durst directly. “Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting (the McCormacks) know where to find Kathie.”
The jury heard from more than 70 witnesses over four months of testimony before convicting Durst of first-degree murder, with the special allegations that he plotted the slaying in advance to wipe out a witness.
“I was robbed, and my beautiful my son was robbed, of an absolutely extraordinary, unforgettable brilliant person whose life was savagely taken when she was 55,” Berman’s cousin Deni Marcus told the court Thursday, calling Berman “undeniably unforgettable” and “priceless.”
After eluding charges in Berman’s death for many years as well, Durst found himself back in the criminal crosshairs when he agreed to cooperate for the 2015 HBO documentary about his life, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. The docuseries was a sensation, weaving together all the hallmarks of a true-crime thriller, from a beautiful 29-year-old medical student who disappeared without a trace to a mobster’s daughter shot in the back of her head and the subsequent shooting death and dismemberment of a Texas man by a millionaire who donned a woman’s wig to live undercover in a cramped Gulf Coast apartment. The Jinx included rare and damaging commentary from Durst himself and unearthed new evidence that Los Angeles prosecutors seemed to use almost as a roadmap to arrest, charge and try Durst for Berman’s murder.
During the trial that started in March 2020 before going on hiatus for 14 months due to the pandemic, prosecutors presented evidence and testimony supporting their theory that it was Berman, posing as Kathie, who called in sick to Kathie’s medical school dean after she was last seen alive. The call was critical, prosecutors said, because it led investigators to believe Durst’s claim that his young wife had made it back to their Manhattan penthouse after he allegedly drove her to a Westchester train station following a turbulent, argument-filled weekend at their lake house.
Berman — an author who wrote about her unconventional life as the daughter of David Berman, a Vegas gangster who worked with Bugsy Siegel — became Durst’s go-to fixer in 1982 after they met as students at UCLA in the late 1960s and became close confidants, Lewin argued. In damaging testimony over the summer, her surrogate stepdaughter, Mella Kaufman, testified that Berman once made the startling admission to her that she “had been an alibi, or made a phone call for (Durst).”
In The Jinx, it was Sareb Kaufman who unearthed the 1999 letter from Durst to Berman that bore the same distinct block lettering and misspelling of “Beverley” as the anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police that alerted authorities to Berman’s body. After Durst was confronted with the similarities on camera, he wandered into a bathroom with his microphone on and muttered to himself what seemed to be a confession, though it was later picked apart and dismissed by his lead defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin.
After the penultimate Jinx episode with the letter bombshell, but before the series finale where Durst was confronted on camera, the millionaire went on the run and was arrested on the Berman murder warrant in Louisiana. Authorities found in his possession a revolver, $45,000 cash, and a full-head latex mask complete with a spiky silver hairdo.
The mask was an echo of another elaborate disguise employed by Durst in Texas. The millionaire admitted to jurors he posed as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner to hide out in Galveston around the time of Berman’s death. Durst said he trying to keep a low profile because he was afraid then-Westechester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro was going to charge him with Kathie’s death.
It was in Galveston that Durst killed and dismembered his neighbor Morris Black in 2001. He was acquitted of murder in the case after claiming he shot Black in self-defense. He then explained he hacked up Black’s body in a drunken panic. Jurors saw gruesome photos of Black’s severed limbs that Durst tossed in Galveston Bay without understanding that the currents would pull them back to shore.
According to Lewin, Durst killed Black because the neighbor discovered his true identity while Durst was on the lam after murdering Berman.
During lengthy and bizarre testimony in his own defense, delivered while seated in a wheelchair, Durst admitted he wrote the cadaver note but claimed he only stumbled upon Berman’s body and didn’t know who actually shot her. The jury didn’t buy that story and deliberated less than eight hours before unanimously voting to convict.
Judge Windham ended the hearing saying he understood the “heartbreak” of the McCormack family and wished them peace.
“We intend to appeal,” Durst’s lead defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin said.
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