The multimillionaire New York real estate heir Robert Durst has been convicted of murdering his best friend Susan Berman more than 20 years ago, in a case that took on new life following the documentary The Jinx.
Durst was found guilty of first degree murder on Friday after a jury in Los Angeles deliberated for about seven hours over three days. Berman was shot at point-blank range in her Beverly Hills home in December 2000 as she was prepared to tell police how she helped cover up the killing of Durst’s wife.
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, was Durst’s longtime confidante who told friends she provided a phony alibi for him after his wife vanished.
The verdict marked the first homicide conviction for a man suspected of killing three people in three states over nearly 40 years. Durst’s strange story gripped viewers of the hit television documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the disappearance of his wife Kathie in 1982, the cold-blooded murder of Berman in Los Angeles 18 years later, and the violent 2001 death of a roommate in Galveston, Texas, where Durst was living under cover as a deaf-mute woman.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors painted a portrait of a rich narcissist who didn’t think the laws applied to him and ruthlessly disposed of people who stood in his way. They interlaced evidence of Berman’s killing with Kathie Durst’s suspected death and the 2001 killing in Texas.
The trial had been in the works for five years, since Durst’s arrest on the eve of the airing of the final episode of The Jinx. The HBO documentary included interviews with Durst that helped lead to the charges against him.
The conviction marks a victory for authorities who have sought to put Durst behind bars for murder in three states. Durst was never charged in the disappearance of his wife, who has never been found, and was acquitted of murder in Galveston, Texas, where he admitted dismembering the victim’s body and tossing it out to sea.
Durst’s evasion of justice has seen remarkable twists and turns. Durst ran from the law multiple times, disguised as a mute woman in Texas and staying under an alias at a New Orleans hotel with a shoulders-to-head latex mask for a presumed getaway. He jumped bail in Texas and was arrested after shoplifting a chicken sandwich in Pennsylvania, despite having $37,000 in cash along with two handguns in his rental car.
He later quipped that he was “the worst fugitive the world has ever met”.
Durst later came to deeply regret his decision to participate in The Jinx after it aired on HBO in 2015, calling it a “very, very, very big mistake”.
In the documentary Durst made several damaging new statements on camera, particularly about the Berman case. One of the most incriminating pieces of evidence concerned the so-called “cadaver” note, an anonymous note sent to police directing them to Berman’s lifeless body.
Durst, who was so confident he couldn’t be connected to the note, told filmmakers “only the killer could have written” the note, which contained merely the address of Berman’s house in Beverly Hills and the word “cadaver”.
Filmmakers confronted him with a letter he sent Berman a year earlier. The handwriting was identical and Beverly Hills was misspelled as “Beverley” on both. He couldn’t tell the two apart.
The gotcha moment provided the climax of the movie as Durst stepped off camera and muttered to himself on a live microphone in the bathroom: “Killed them all, of course.”
During 14 days of testimony that was so punishing that Judge Mark Windham called it “devastating”, Durst denied killing his wife and Berman, though he said he would lie if he did. He tried to explain away the note and what prosecutors said was a confession during an unguarded moment.
Durst admitted on the witness stand that he sent the note and had been in Los Angeles at the time of Berman’s death. He said he sent the note because he wanted Berman to be found but didn’t want anyone to know he had been there because it would look suspicious.
He acknowledged that even he had difficulty imagining he could have written the note without killing Berman.
“It’s very difficult to believe, to accept, that I wrote the letter and did not kill Susan Berman,” Durst testified.
A prosecutor said it was one of the truest things Durst said amid a ton of lies.
Jurors began hearing evidence in March 2020 before taking a 14-month break during the pandemic. The case resumed in May.
Durst, 78 and frail, is likely to 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. Windham set a sentencing hearing for 18 October.
Andrew Gumbel contributed reporting