Robert Durst, the real estate heir suspected in a string of killings over nearly four decades, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering his friend and confidante Susan Berman.
A Los Angeles jury convicted Durst, 78, of first degree murder last month for the 2000 killing. Prosecutors argued that Durst had shot Berman at point-blank range in her home to prevent her from telling police what she knew about the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst. The verdict marked the first homicide conviction for Durst, who has been linked to the deaths of three people in three states.
Durst’s attorneys filed a motion seeking a new trial, claiming there was insufficient evidence to convict Durst, which the judge dismissed on Thursday at the start of the sentencing.
“The defendant’s testimony was profoundly incredible and incriminating,” said judge Mark Windham, adding that there was “overwhelming evidence of guilt”.
Thursday’s sentence was expected as prosecutors did not seek the death penalty and the jury had also convicted Durst of the special circumstances of lying in wait and killing a witness, which carry mandatory life sentences.
Family and friends of Berman told the court how Durst had robbed them of an unforgettable and loyal friend who cared deeply for other people.
“It’s been a daily, soul-consuming and crushing experience,” Sareb Kaufman, Berman’s stepson, said of her murder.
Another relative said he had visited Berman’s grave to tell her that justice had been served and she could finally “rest easy”.
Before sentencing Durst, the judge said Berman was an “an extraordinary human being” and her death was a loss to the community.
The sentencing came six years after the documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst thrust the multimillionaire into the spotlight. The series chronicled Berman’s murder, as well as the disappearance of Durst’s wife and the 2001 death of a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, where Durst was hiding out while disguised as a deaf-mute woman. He was arrested on the eve of the airing of the last episode of the series, in which Durst appeared to confess to the killings, saying to himself, “What the hell did I do? … Killed them all, of course.”
In court, the 78-year-old appeared sick and far more frail than he did in the 2015 documentary. He struggles with hearing and used a wheelchair throughout the trial. At one point, after 38 hours of cross-examination, the judge urged the lead prosecutor to stop his questions. “At some point, there’s a limit,” the judge said.
Authorities have sought to put Durst behind bars for years for his role in crimes that officials believe date back to the disappearance and probable murder of McCormack.
“Everything starts with Kathie Durst’s disappearance and death at the hands of Mr Durst,” John Lewin, the deputy district attorney, said in his opening statement at the Berman trial.
McCormack’s body was never found, though she was declared dead in 2017. Durst was never an official suspect in the case, but prosecutors argued he was responsible for her death. The couple had been fighting before she disappeared, Durst admitted, and in the preceding weeks McCormack had gone to the hospital with injuries she said Durst had caused.
Prosecutors said Durst had killed Berman, his best friend, because she was prepared to tell police how she helped cover up the killing of McCormack. Berman had reportedly told friends she had provided him with a false alibi.
Prosecutors said on Thursday that they did not believe Berman had known she was covering up a murder, and that she had instead been trying to help her friend. Durst, they said, had probably told her what happened to McCormack was an accident.
Durst had previously faced a murder trial in Texas for the death of his neighbor Morris Black. While in Galveston, the heir tried to pass himself off as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner, but Black didn’t buy the disguise and he was shot and dismembered, prosecutors said. Durst and his legal team argued he had killed Black in self-defense, and he was acquitted.
Prosecutors in New York are expected to pursue charges against Durst over his ex-wife’s death. The Westchester district attorney’s office has reopened the investigation into McCormack’s death but has not confirmed reports of its plan to seek an indictment against Durst.
McCormack’s family had hoped to speak at Thursday’s sentencing, a request that was denied as California law mandates that only Berman’s family is eligible to offer victim impact statements in court, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It was never really a thought that they wouldn’t be allowed to give a victim impact statement,” Robert Abrams, the McCormacks’ family attorney, told the newspaper. “When somebody is the central focus of the criminal trial, you would expect it.”
Berman’s relatives pleaded with Durst to tell the McCormack family where he buried his first wife’s body.
“Any hope of any kind of redemption you can find is in letting them know where to find Kathie,” Kaufman said.