Robert Durst Sentenced to Life in Prison for Friend’s Murder
Nearly four decades after his wife’s abrupt disappearance cast a cloud of suspicion that would make his case one of the most notorious in the country, Robert A. Durst was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison for the execution-style killing in 2000 of a close confidante.
The 78-year-old Mr. Durst, whose life story inspired a Hollywood movie and an HBO documentary, will not be eligible for parole. The jury that convicted him of first-degree murder in Los Angeles last month found that the prosecution had proven special circumstances: Namely, that Mr. Durst shot Susan Berman, a journalist and screenwriter, because he feared she was about to tell investigators what she had learned as his liaison with the news media after the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst.
For the first time since the trial resumed in May, the courtroom was full on Thursday, with most of the jurors in attendance.
Mr. Durst, who sat slumped in a wheelchair, wore a brown jailhouse jumper and a surgical mask. He did not address the judge, and because of his difficulty hearing, he followed along by watching a tablet display the words spoken in court.
“I was robbed, and my beautiful son was robbed, of an absolutely extraordinary brilliant person whose life was savagely taken,” Deni Marcus, one of Ms. Berman’s cousins, said during the four victim-impact statements that were delivered to the judge.
Another of Ms. Berman’s cousins, Dave Berman, fought back tears while saying, “I visited her and told her she could rest easy, that justice has been done.” He added that Mr. Durst should say where Ms. Durst’s body is so her family could get some closure.
Judge Mark E. Windham called Ms. Berman’s death a witness killing and “a horrific crime” that was also “a denial of justice to the McCormack family.” Before pronouncing the sentence, he denied a request by the defense for a new trial, citing “overwhelming evidence of guilt.” The defense is expected to appeal.
Since his wife vanished without a trace, Mr. Durst, born into a family whose Manhattan real estate empire is valued today at about $8 billion, has led a peripatetic existence. He moved between New York, California and Texas, where he stood trial in 2003 for the murder and dismemberment of Morris Black, a man who lived across the hall from him in a Galveston rooming house where Mr. Durst was posing as a mute woman.
Mr. Durst claimed self-defense, and a jury acquitted him, despite his testimony about sitting in a pool of blood while carving up Mr. Morris’s body.
Ms. Berman, who had been Mr. Durst’s close friend for many years, was found dead in her home on the edge of Beverly Hills on Christmas Eve in 2000. After neighbors saw her two dogs running free, the police were called and found her back door open. Ms. Berman had been shot in the back of the head; there were no signs of forced entry, and her purse was untouched.
“I think she was kind of in love with Bobby,” Dave Berman said in an interview before the sentencing. Ms. Berman had met Mr. Durst, he said, when she was in journalism school in California. “She had him give her away at her wedding. There are more pictures of her hugging Bobby than of her and her husband.”
Even as Mr. Durst was sentenced on Thursday, the investigation of his wife’s disappearance was moving forward once again.
Miriam E. Rocah, the district attorney in Westchester County, N.Y., where the couple lived in 1982, announced this year that her office had reopened the case. Prosecutors are interviewing witnesses and are expected to seek a first-degree murder indictment from a grand jury in the coming week.
Understand the Robert Durst Case
A high-profile murder. On Oct. 14, Robert A. Durst was sentenced to life without parole for the 2000 killing of Susan Berman, a journalist and close confidante. Mr. Durst, onetime heir to a New York real estate empire, was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in September. Here is what else you should know:
The verdict. The jury found that Mr. Durst shot Ms. Berman after he entered her home at the edge of Beverly Hills, acting out of fear that Ms. Berman would tell investigators what she knew about the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst.
“The Jinx” factor. Some of the most damaging evidence in the Berman case came from interviews that Mr. Durst had given to the producers of an HBO series, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” The documentary, which aired in 2015, led to Mr. Durst’s arrest in the same year.
His wife’s disappearance. Kathie McCormack and Mr. Durst married in 1973, but their union was soon rocked by emotional and physical violence. Mrs. Durst vanished on Jan. 31, 1982. She was later declared legally dead. Prosecutors said that Ms. Berman had helped Mr. Durst cover up his wife’s disappearance and death.
A case spanning decades. Despite several investigations, Mr. Durst has never been charged in connection with his wife’s disappearance. The Westchester County district attorney announced in May that her office had reopened the case.
Yet another murder. In 2003, Mr. Durst stood trial for the murder of Morris Black, a neighbor in Galveston, Texas. A jury acquitted him, despite his testimony that he had carved up Mr. Morris’s body. Mr. Durst fled to Texas, posing as a mute woman, after investigators reopened the case into his wife’s disappearance.
That could be a challenge given that there are no witnesses, weapon, fingerprints or a body.
Mr. Durst has acknowledged in the past that he was a “bad husband” but has always insisted he did not kill his wife. He also continued to deny involvement in Ms. Berman’s death.
He might still be a free man if he had not, against all advice from his lawyers, talked and talked about both cases, providing investigators with a trail of bread crumbs. He gave 20 hours of interviews containing many damaging admissions to the producers of the 2015 HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” (The maker of the documentary had previously directed a movie, “All Good Things,” starring Ryan Gosling as a character based on Mr. Durst.)
After he was arrested in New Orleans in 2015 and charged with Ms. Berman’s murder, Mr. Durst gave a nearly three-hour interview to a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, John Lewin. The talkative Mr. Durst is also on record on hundreds of prison phone calls, making not-so-guarded statements that prosecutors used against him in court.
The trial began in March 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic brought life across America to a halt. When testimony was set to resume in May, defense lawyers called the 14-month delay the longest adjournment featuring the same jury in U.S. history.
After weeks of testimony, the jury deliberated for about seven and a half hours before finding Mr. Durst guilty last month. He was not in the courtroom for the verdict; he was in quarantine, officials said, after being exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus.
After the verdict, his wife’s family issued a statement calling for Mr. Durst to be prosecuted in her disappearance as well. “Kathie,” they wrote, “is still waiting for justice.”