The admission, made publicly for the first time, was the first glimpse of the planned defense for Durst, who is on trial for the 2000 killing of his best friend Susan Berman in her Beverly Hills, California, home.
“Bob Durst did not kill Susan Berman, and he doesn’t know who did," attorney Dick DeGuerin told jurors at the beginning of his opening statement. "He did find her body, shortly after someone had shot her in the back of the head.”
Durst's attorneys had signaled they would take the approach during the run-up to trial, when they conceded that Durst mailed a note to authorities that had only Berman's address and the word “cadaver” written in capital letters. Durst had long denied sending the letter.
“When Bob showed up and found her dead, he panicked," DeGuerin said. "He wrote the anonymous letter, so her body would be found, and he ran. He’s run away all his life.” DeGuerin said Durst had come to visit Berman for the Christmas holidays, which he did often, showing jurors a letter from years earlier where Durst told Berman affectionately of plans he had for spending the holidays together.
DeGuerin stopped there and did not go into detail on the defense's account of Berman's killing, shifting instead to the death soon after in Galveston, Texas, of Morris Black and the last time he represented Durst and put him on the stand, something he told jurors he would do again in the Berman trial.
“Bob Durst is going to testify,” DeGuerin said Tuesday, stunning his courtroom audience. Having the defendant take the stand and be subjected to cross-examination at a murder trial is considered risky. In the case of Durst, whose candid, say-anything style was on display in clips from police and television interviews during the prosecution's opening statement, it would seem to be especially ill-advised.
But it worked the first time. Durst was acquitted in the 2003 Texas trial, where he testified that he had dismembered and disposed of Black's body after Black was accidentally shot during a struggle.
DeGuerin said Tuesday that Black's dismemberment was the “elephant in the room” that threatens to overwhelm all the other evidence. “Whatever happened after Morris's death could not change the way he died,” DeGuerin said.
The prosecution, whose three-day opening statement ended Monday, is being permitted to allege in this case that Durst deliberately killed Black because Black had learned that Durst, who was disguising himself as a woman, was in fact a wealthy real estate heir who was on the run.
The prosecution is also allowed to allege that Durst killed his wife, Kathie, whose 1982 disappearance has brought him decades of suspicion and media attention. Durst denies having anything to do with the New York disappearance of his wife, who has since been declared dead despite no body being found.
DeGuerin said that Durst is living with that suspicion, along with mild autism that makes social life difficult for him and a tendency to self-medicate with marijuana and alcohol. “Bob doesn’t make good decisions. It's part of his makeup,” DeGuerin said. “Throughout his life, Bob has run away from trouble.”
He pointed out for jurors how frail the 76-year-old Durst appeared in court, telling them he survived esophageal cancer, brain surgery and many other ailments. DeGuerin said the defense will also dismantle the seemingly damning statements Durst made during interviews for the 2015 HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which helped lead to Durst's arrest.
“Bob’s words were heavily edited,” DeGuerin said. “We’re going to see the unedited parts, the raw footage.” DeGuerin, 79, a Houston attorney who sports a cowboy hat when he leaves the courtroom and introduced his wife and daughter to jurors during his opening statement, spoke in a folksy drawl that stood in contrast to the direct, driving style of lead prosecutor John Lewin.
The two men have clashed constantly through the trial's four days, frequently and angrily interrupting each other as Lewin did Tuesday when he thought DeGuerin was using inadmissible evidence to disparage Black's character.
“It was evidence in Galveston,” DeGuerin replied. “Well we’re not in Galveston!” Lewin shouted back. “No, we’re not, we’re in Southern California," DeGuerin said on a day when it rained heavily in Los Angeles, "where it’s warm and sunny outside. And we’re happy to be here.”