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Robert Durst Murder Trial Resumes

LOS ANGELES, CA -  MARCH 10:  Real estate heir Robert Durst looks over during his murder trial on March 10, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Millionaire Robert Durst is accused of murdering his friend and long-time confidante Susan Berman in 2000. Prosecutors have built their case around evidence from the HBO documentary "The Jinx.â   which helped lead to Durst's arrest. (Photo by Alex Gallardo-Pool/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. on May 12, 2021 4:09 PM

Susan Berman was discovered dead in her home on December 23, 2000. She was found in a bedroom with a gunshot wound to the back of the head and there was no sign of a forced entry. For almost 20 years, her close friend, real estate heir Robert Durst, denied any involvement. But now, after a year-long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Durst is on trial for her murder (again).

Back On Trial

Durst, whose family owns one of the biggest real estate development companies in Manhattan, has been connected to three suspicious deaths over the last forty years or so. In 1982 his first wife, Kathie, disappeared. She is presumed dead, although her body was never found. In 2003, Durst was tried for the murder of his neighbor, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas. He was found not guilty despite admitting to dismembering and disposing of Black's body.

Jeanine Pirro, then the Westchester County District Attorney, reopened the investigation into Kathie Durst's disappearance in November 2000. Investigators believe Berman impersonated Kathie in a call to her medical school in Manhattan. In that call, "Kathie" informed the dean that she was sick and wouldn't be attending class. At the time, the call seemed to place Kathie in Manhattan when Durst said she was there. But now, many believe it was an attempt to turn attention away from the Durst's vacation home in upstate New York, where it's believed the murder took place.

Just a few weeks before Berman's death, investigators were preparing to talk to her about the case. She apparently told Durst this, which may have given him the motive to kill her.

Why Is This Trial Happening Now?

Unlike other types of crimes, there is no statute of limitations for murder. That's why we see cases like the Golden State Killer, who law enforcement apprehended just three years ago - decades after he committed 13 murders and 50 rapes.

At the time of Berman's death, investigators focused more on a possible mafia connection. Berman's father was a well-known mobster, and the method used to kill Berman resembled a mob hit. But new evidence led authorities to arrest Durst in 2015.

It's not uncommon for high-profile cases to take years to go to trial. But this case also had the added complication of an unprecedented public health crisis.

Durst's Attorneys Say Delay is Grounds for Mistrial

The 12-juror panel and their 11 alternates heard six days of testimony before the courts closed on March 12, 2020. Proceedings were initially set to resume in July 2020, but the defense and the prosecution agreed to push it to 2021.

Durst's attorneys made a motion for a mistrial last year because of the delay in the proceedings caused by the pandemic. They say bringing back the same jury, who have had plenty of time to read about the case or watch the HBO documentary, ruins Durst's chance at a fair trial. This concern is based on the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. In general, this means a defendant can't be held for an unreasonable amount of time while awaiting trial. But the Constitution doesn't define exactly what “speedy" means; it's up to trial judges to decide whether the delay between arrest and trial is unreasonable and prejudicial to the defendant. The Supreme Court has said that judges must consider:

  1. The length of the delay
  2. Reason for the delay
  3. Whether the defendant has asserted or waived their right to a speedy trial
  4. Potential prejudice to the defendant

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham denied Durst's motion for a mistrial, so jurors will be coming back in on May 17. They'll go through some informal questioning to determine that they are still able to serve on the jury, and then they'll move on to a new round of opening statements.

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