Almost certainly, Robert Durst is a sociopathic serial murderer. On the gasp-inducing conclusion of the HBO documentary about him, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” he mutters to himself, mic’d up in the bathroom, after being confronted with handwriting evidence so damning it made him twitch and burp:
“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Those last two words, which have received the least analysis, are the most telling. Of course he killed them. It’s been painfully obvious for more than three decades that he’s a murderer. So why has he been free for so long?
Money. Big, heaping piles of Manhattan-skyscraper-tycoon cash. The kind of 1-percent-of-the-1-percent uber-wealth that cannot be spent in one lifetime. Our legal system has never resembled the blindfolded lady with the scales. Today, more than ever, it’s a kid’s seesaw with millions of poor Americans piled up on one side — seat to the hard ground, churned into prisons for offenses petty and serious — and the few rich ever accused of any crimes lifted ever higher into the ether where they are rarely indicted and even more rarely convicted. “Mr. Green,” as we used to call legal fees in a big law firm I worked in years ago, is capable of moving mountains in our justice system.
When I anchored my former show on Court TV, I covered Durst’s trial for the 2001 murder of Morris Black gavel to gavel. Durst not only killed his neighbor in a scuffle in his Galveston, Texas, home, he admits that he then took a saw and dismembered Black’s body, stuffing body parts into trash bags and dumping those sacks into the Galveston Bay.
Durst appears to have long enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game he’s played with law enforcement since his 1982 murder – I mean, alleged murder – of his young wife Kathie Durst, who was in the process of divorcing him. Though he lied about his whereabouts the night she went missing, though he told wildly conflicting stories about an important phone call he claims to have made to her after she vanished, though the doorman of their Manhattan home flip-flopped on his story about whether she arrived in the city that night, prosecutors never charged him with her murder. Durst must have emerged from that experience arrogant over his ability to dispose of a body, thereby depriving police of a rich source of evidence against him (DNA, ballistics, hair, fibers, manner of death). Of course he killed her.
And so, of course, when he didn’t get along with Black, he tried his hand at cadaver disposal again. But Durst, not quite as smart as he thinks he is, admits he didn’t count on the south Texas tides and those trash bags floating to the surface. However, he was clever enough to permanently hide Black’s head, which would have been law enforcement’s best source of information to quickly identify the remains and time and cause of death.
I remember Black’s murder trial well: Durst’s brilliant $2 million trial lawyers and his high-priced jury consultant, who was able to pick a jury panel that promised they’d separate out the killing (self-defense!) from the dismemberment that immediately followed (sure, an entirely different incident). The jury delivered with its astonishing verdict: acquittal.
And as interviews in “The Jinx” establish, the defense team was able to paint then Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro as the true villain. What nerve she had for pursing eccentric kook Bob Durst for the murder of his wife! (Oops. Alleged murder.) It’s a standard defense trick to give the jury an alternate scapegoat to hate. As Pirro said:
“I’ve heard of ‘the devil made me do it.’ But ‘the DA made me do it?’”
Absurd, but the jury ate it up.
We also know from “The Jinx” that Durst was eerily cold and unfeeling when he practiced his testimony about the killing and dismemberment with his lawyers. He needed days of rehearsals and coaching to say that his memory was foggy on the details so that he could perform well on the witness stand. The jury saw the warmest, most sensible and charming Durst money could buy. A poor, or even middle-class, defendant would not be able to afford all this attorney time and team coaching.
Durst is now arrested for the killing of his close friend Susan Berman, who was murdered in late 2000, months before the killing of Black. (She was slated to talk to the police about the Kathie Durst disappearance.) Berman’s remains were left in her home — perhaps because if Durst shot her, he also cared for her in some twisted way, or perhaps because he didn’t have body-disposal tools at the ready that day. The killer fled, but first sent a letter to the “Beverley Hills Police” stating “cadaver” and Berman’s address.
“The Jinx” filmmakers uncovered a letter written from Durst to Berman with strikingly similar block lettering, with the same misspelling of “Beverley Hills” on the address. And also there’s that ugly men’s room confession, which Durst’s lawyers are surely strategizing about now. (Sarcasm? Emotional disturbance? He’s speaking in the voice of what others would say about him? Let the excuses begin!)
Surely his lawyers will carefully brief every legal argument available to him, including an insanity defense (he’s already in a mental facility) and an argument that the confession is inadmissible and handwriting analysis untrustworthy. It could be years before the 71-year-old faces another jury; when he does, his dream team will be polished and ready. And despite this new damning evidence, prosecutors may have a tough time convicting him once again.
He’s not the first to benefit from our system’s thumb on the scales for the rich.
Record producer Phil Spector escaped justice for decades, though he’d regularly pulled guns on people who displeased him, particularly women who rebuffed his sexual advances. His millions bought him aggressive, meticulous defense teams. Despite powerful evidence against him and his preposterous suicide defense, it took two lengthy trials for prosecutors to ultimately convict him of the murder of Lana Clarkson, his last victim.
The number of women who now publicly accuse comedian Bill Cosby of rape is nearing 40. If only 10 percent of them are telling the truth, he’s a serial predator. His money has bought him not only top lawyers coast-to-coast, but also the best publicists to kill stories and skilled investigators to humiliate alleged victims and scare them out of coming forward.
Director Roman Polanski drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old girl. The system contorted itself to accommodate his fame and fortune. But, just to be safe, he fled to Europe, where he’s lived comfortably ever since.
And of course, O.J. Simpson beat criminal charges for the double murder for which a civil jury found him legally responsible.
Mr. Green remains the best defense lawyer of them all.
Photo via HBO