Thu, Oct 14, 2021 7:28 PM
By BRIAN MELLEY, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — New York real estate heir Robert Durst was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without a chance of parole for the murder of his best friend more than two decades ago.
Durst, 78, was convicted in Los Angeles Superior Court last month of first-degree murder for shooting Susan Berman point-blank in the back of the head at her home in December 2000.
The killing had been a mystery that haunted family and friends for 15 years before Durst was arrested in 2015 following his unwise decision to participate in a documentary that unearthed new evidence and caught him in a stunning confession.
Berman's death left a permanent hole in the lives of family members who remembered her Thursday for her adventurousness, creativity and deep love and loyalty.
“It has been a daily, soul-consuming and crushing experience," said Sareb Kaufman, who considered Berman his mother after his father dated her. “I’ve lost everything many times over because of him."
Durst, who has numerous medical issues and sat in a wheelchair wearing brown jail scrubs, said nothing. His eyes were wide open, and he had a catatonic stare when he entered the courtroom and barely looked over at Kaufman and three of Berman's cousins when they spoke.
Durst silenced Berman to prevent her from incriminating him in the reopened investigation of his wife’s 1982 disappearance in New York, prosecutors said.
Berman provided a phony alibi for Durst when Kathie Durst vanished, prosecutors said.
Durst testified he didn’t kill either woman, but he said on cross-examination that he would lie if he had.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that he intentionally killed a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, in 2001, though he had been acquitted of murder in that case after testifying that he shot the man in self-defense and then panicked and chopped up the corpse and tossed it out to sea.
Defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin said Durst will appeal, and he refrained from making other remarks.
Judge Mark Windham denied a motion for a new trial, rejecting arguments there was insufficient evidence or that he ruled incorrectly on 15 issues.
“You said the court erred so many times it made me feel self-conscious,” Windham joked.
Windham there was overwhelming evidence and prosecutors proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at least five ways, including devastating revelations during Durst's cross-examination and an admission he made in the climax of the six-part documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Crimes of Robert Durst.”
After being caught in a lie about a note he penned directing police to Berman's lifeless body, Durst went into a bathroom and muttered to himself on a live microphone, “You’re caught." He later said, "Killed them all, of course.”
Filmmakers confronted him with a note police received that had Berman's address and only the word “cadaver." It was addressed in block letters and misspelled Beverly Hills as “Beverley.”
Durst said only the killer could have written it, and it wasn't him. He was then shown a letter he once wrote Berman in the same handwriting and Beverly misspelled the same way.
Durst testified that he regretted participating in the documentary.
Kaufman's life was derailed in his mid-20s when Berman was killed and he found himself responsible for taking care of her estate. He said he spent months packing up her house, returning to the murder scene where her matted hair was still on the floor amid the bloody paw prints of her dogs.
He spoke bitterly of the experience and having to store her belongings in his tiny apartment, but didn't mention it was there that crucial piece of evidence — the letter confirming a match with the “cadaver note” was found.
The trial began in March 2020 and was adjourned for 14 months as the coronavirus pandemic swept the U.S. and courts were closed. It resumed in May with the jury that reached its verdict Sept. 17.
Seven of the jurors returned to witness the sentencing.
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster and a writer, was Durst’s longtime confidante from college days. She told friends and Durst she was preparing to speak with police about the reinvestigation of his wife's disappearance shortly before she was killed.
Kathie Durst has never been found. Robert Durst has never been charged with a crime related to her disappearance.
But following his conviction in Berman's death, which relied on evidence that he killed his wife, a New York prosecutor is prepared now to seek charges against him in her death, a person familiar with the matter — but who was not authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation and did so on condition of anonymity — told The Associated Press.
Kathie McCormack Durst's family had hoped to present statements to the court Thursday about their loss, but prosecutors denied the request, according to emails sent to their lawyer.
Attorney Robert Abrams, who showed up at the hearing. said the McCormack family was disappointed, and he was outraged.
“The family is not going to go travel 3,000 miles to be a prop in some Hollywood production and sit there and not be able to make their victim impact statements," Abrams said. “This is not some movie where it’s gross spectacle. This is their lives, and they’ve suffered for 40 years.”
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, Kaufman and others pleaded with Durst now to tell the McCormack family where she was buried.
“I hope in your final days and hours you will ... give the McCormacks what little they are asking for: to find Kathie, to lay her to rest appropriately, finally and at long last,” Kaufman said. “This is the most important question that still haunts us."
Durst is the grandson of Joseph Durst, who founded the Durst Organization, one of Manhattan’s largest commercial real estate firms, and is said to have a $100 million fortune.
Davy Berman, whose family took in his his cousin after her father died, said he had gone to see her grave before the sentencing.
“I visited her and told her she could rest easy," he said as his voice cracked. “That justice has been done.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.