Two decades after the murder of Susan Berman, her friend and former employer Robert Durst is going on trial for the crime. For years, Durst — a real estate heir and the subject of the 2015 HBO docuseries The Jinx — had denied any involvement with Berman’s 2000 murder, but was arrested for the killing in March 2015, just ahead of when the final episode of the series aired. Beyond Berman’s murder, The Jinx also told Durst’s stranger-than-fiction backstory, which involved him denying responsibility for his ex-wife’s 1982 disappearance, while admitting to dismembering a friend of his while he was living in Texas.
Now, five years after the show and Durst’s arrest, what can we expect from Berman’s murder trial? What new evidence has been discovered, and what role will the high-profile series have in the trial? Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening in court.
Who is Robert Durst?
To date, Durst, 76, has been linked to three murders — including Berman’s execution-style killing — and as he noted throughout The Jinx, he maintains his innocence. The son of one of New York’s most successful real estate moguls, each of the crimes Durst has been suspected of has made tabloid headlines. In addition to Berman, Durst was investigated for a potential role in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie Durst, though her corpse was never found and he was never formally charged. The third murder also happened in 2000 and involved Durst’s friend and neighbor, Morris Black. Though Durst admitted to dismembering Black, he claimed that it was out of self-defense, and a Texas jury convicted him only of evidence-tampering and bail-jumping.
In the final episode of The Jinx, Durst seemingly admitted to committing all three crimes while mumbling to himself when he went to a restroom still wearing his microphone for the recorded interviews. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham later referred to this as “a succinct confession.” “What the hell did I do?” Durst is heard saying on a live mic in the film, followed around 10 seconds later with “killed them all, of course.” And though it sounds like a confession, four years after the show ran, new information came out suggesting that the audio in that scene was edited out of sequence. And that’s only part of it.
The day before the sixth and final episode of The Jinx aired on HBO, Durst was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the death of Berman. His arrest was based on evidence discovered during the production of the show: a letter he admitted to writing to Berman, which contained handwriting that matched another note alerting police to the location of Berman’s remains. As shown in the series, even Durst couldn’t tell the difference.
What’s happening with the trial?
Durst’s jury trial begins on February 11th at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles County. He has pleaded not guilty. The trial could last as long as five months, The New York Times reports, and will likely thrust Durst back into the media spotlight — including reportedly being the subject of upcoming episodes of NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s 20/20, and CNN Headline News.
Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s lead defense attorney for the trial, did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment. A representative for Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, chief prosecutor for the trial, told Rolling Stone that the office isn’t making any statements prior to the trial, though the representative did point to several pretrial motions the office filed as recently as January 9th. In that particular motion, the prosecution noted its opposition to the defense’s request to exclude evidence that Durst coerced his ex-wife Kathie into having an abortion. The prosecution argues that Durst killed Kathie shortly before she graduated from medical school, requested that Berman help him cover it up, and then murdered Berman to keep her from speaking with authorities. In a hearing held on January 13th, Windham ruled that the coerced-abortion evidence is admissible because it “is relevant to show motive in the disappearance of Kathie Durst and motive in the homicide of Susan Berman.”
“As Kathie began to gain independence and neared graduation, [the] defendant began to lose some of this control. He responded with emotional abuse and increasing violence,” prosecutors wrote in the January 8th filing, which the DA’s office emailed to Rolling Stone. “The fact that [the] defendant controlled Kathie by forcing her to get an abortion, coupled with the fact that his mental and physical abuse escalated as he began losing control, tends to prove [the] defendant’s motive to kill Kathie, as well as his resulting actions after her death. The subsequent cover-up that [the] defendant orchestrated with Susan Berman’s assistance became defendant’s motive for eventually killing Susan as well.”
Another recent development in the case occurred when Durst admitted to writing what is known as the “cadaver note.” Previously, Durst had denied to the Beverly Hills police that he was behind the letter, which consisted of a single sheet of paper with the word “cadaver” and Berman’s address written on it in block letters, and sent the day she was murdered. In fact, in The Jinx, Durst told the producers that whoever was responsible for the note had taken a “big risk,” because it was something “that only the killer could have written.”
But if Durst’s confession to writing the cadaver note — coupled with his comments in the docuseries — sound like an admission of guilt, think again. The defense team filed a brief in August 2019 indicating that Berman’s killer wasn’t necessarily the author of the message to police. “What the note demonstrates is that the person who mailed it was aware that there was a body at the house, not that the individual murdered Susan Berman,” according to The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the brief.
Will Durst’s “confession” from The Jinx count in court?
Clearly, a lot has happened — not only in the nearly 20 years since Berman’s murder, but also in the five since The Jinx first aired on HBO. So with the trial starting now, there are questions over what parts of the show (specifically his infamous hot-mic “confession”) will be admissible in court.
An April 2019 article in The New York Times called into question the editing of the docuseries’ final episode, bringing to light the fact that the two sentences many consider to be his confession to the murders (“What the hell did I do?” and “Killed them all, of course”) actually appeared out of order in the film. The documentarians behind The Jinx — Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, and Zac Stuart-Pontier — told The Times that they believed that even with the editing, the message remained representative of what Durst had said. They also responded to criticism that they had the recorded “confession” on tape for two years before handing it over to authorities, saying that during that period they were unaware of the comments Durst made while in the restroom. Legally, the filmmakers were not required to submit their materials to police.
Unsurprisingly, Durst’s defense team took this new information about the editing of the docuseries and attempted to use it to prove that Jarecki and his co-filmmakers were acting as “government agents” and therefore any evidence uncovered in The Jinx should not be considered in court. But this strategy didn’t work: In September 2019, Windham ruled that he didn’t have the authority to declare the filmmakers “government agents.” We can, however, expect to see Jarecki, Smerling, and Stuart-Pontier on the witness stand during the trial, their attorney Victor Kovner told The New York Times in the April 2019 article.
With a high profile and high stakes for not only the parties involved, but also the role of the true-crime entertainment genre in the justice system, Durst’s trial is set to play out as a real-time sequel to The Jinx. And like it’s 2015 run on HBO, it will be hard to look away.