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Lawyer: Durst found body of slain friend, 'panicked' and ran

Deputy District Attorney John Lewin makes opening statements in Robert Durst's murder trial Monday, March 9, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson/Pool Photo via AP)

LOS ANGELES — Robert Durst’s defence lawyer said Tuesday that the multimillionaire real estate heir found the body of the friend he is charged with killing.

The admission, made publicly for the first time, was the first glimpse of the planned defence for Durst, who is on trial for the 2000 killing of his best friend Susan Berman in her Beverly Hills 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 signalled 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 defence’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.

In that murder trial, DeGuerin made the bold move of putting Durst on the witness stand, where he admitted to dismembering and disposing of the body of his neighbour Black. He said Black was accidentally shot to death in a struggle in the apartment where Durst had gone to hide out after Berman was killed.

Durst was acquitted, which DeGuerin frequently emphasized for jurors. He said that in the current trial, that dismemberment is “the elephant in the room” that is overwhelming all the other evidence.

“The jury in Galveston was able to separate the manner in which Morris Black died from what happened to his body after he was dead,” Deguerin said. “The evidence will show that what happened to his body, the dismemberment, could not change the manner in which he died. No matter how gruesome.”

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 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 defence 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 resplied.

“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.”

Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press