Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Durst: Millionaire Murderer

The Morris Black Murder Trial

Robert Durst in custody
Robert Durst in custody

On August, 19, 2003, Courttv.com reported that "prominent jury selection expert Robert Hirschorn has recommended — that several changes be made in the questions used to pick jurors."

Durst's attorneys argued over the validity Lorre Cusick's identification of Durst from a photo lineup. Chip Lewis claimed that the photo lineup contained a mug shot of Durst which had appeared in the media.

Cusick, who lived near the place where Morris Black's body parts were found. She testified that Durst was asking if the area was good for night fishing. Prosecutors believe that Durst was looking for a place to dump Black's body before he killed him.

Juan A. Lorenzo of the Austin American-Statesman wrote that Chip Lewis argued that blood, a paring knife and other evidence found in Durst's apartment and trash cans should be suppressed because police did not have a warrrant for the searches. Instead, they gained access by convincing the landlord to grant access as a tennant "safety check."

Assistant District Attorney Joel Bennett rebutted Lewis, saying that the trash cans are property of the City of Galveston, not Durst, and that when police came asking about the apartment rented by Dorothy Ciner, who was really Durst in disguise, the landlord had suggested that they check on "her" apartment to see if she was okay.

Lorenzo wrote that Durst's attorneys want to keep jurors from learning that he had a butcher's saw and a pistol in his possession when arrested.

The Galveston County wrote that Lewis asked the judge to suppress Durst's arrest, the search of his vehicle and all the evidence taken from it, maintaining that the initial stop was illegal.

Police say they arrested Durst to serve a subpoena for driving with an expired inspection sticker and had probable cause to search the car without the warrant that they obtained later in the day.

Judge Criss did not rule on any of the defense's motions, but may when the hearing resumes on Tuesday, August 26.

On August 8, 2003, the New York Post reported that Durst asked Judge Criss for permission to fire his defense lawyers. Durst wrote that he "had already paid $1.2 mil in retainers to cover all costs relating to his trial," but now they were trying to "squeeze him for another $600,000 in legal fees." The judge called the parties together and resolved the conflict.

In January of 2002, Robert Durst faced Texas Judge Susan Criss in the State District Court in Galveston County on the charge of murder of 71-year-old Morris Black who lived across the hall from him . "I am not guilty, your honor," he stated. Durst claims that he killed Black in self defense.

In April of 2002, Morris Black's autopsy report was available to the court indicating that while Black had suffered a heart attack, it was not what killed him. Wounds that he had experienced prior to death had caused blood to enter his lungs. Black had also suffered several bruises on his body. Officially, Morris Black was classified as a homicide. Black had been dismembered post mortem and thrown into Galveston Bay, but his head was not recovered.

John Springer of Court TV reported on the feasibility of Durst's self-defense claim:

"'I could see how they could try a self-defense, particularly if there are no witnesses,' said Ron Gold, a Morristown, N.J., lawyer who has followed the Durst case in the media. 'But when you have a ton of aggravating factors — concealing what happened and throwing the body parts in the bay and things like that — insanity and self-defense are the last resort.' Gold won an acquittal in a self-defense case last year. Convicted murderer Ambrose Harris killed a fellow New Jersey Death Row inmate, during what amounted to a death-cage match as prison guards and inmates looked on. But in the Harris case, Gold said, there were multiple witnesses and Harris did not even have to take the witness stand in his own defense. In Durst's case, there were apparently no witnesses to the killing. Only physical evidence can point to what happened between him and Durst, who moved about the country disguised as a mute woman long before he even got to Galveston."

Also in April, Scott E. Williams of The Daily News reported that Judge Criss expanded her December, 2001, gag order to include private investigator Bobbi Bacha and members of Black's family who have been involved in a civil case against Durst. Williams also reported that one television camera would be allowed during parts of the trial.

"Judge Susan Criss ruled she would allow one pool television camera during her reading of the charge to the jury, the final arguments and the reading of the verdict in the murder trial of Robert Durst. She also said she would allow one still camera to record most of the trial, which has been scheduled for Aug. 25 in her 212th Judicial District Court."

A Deadly Secret, by Matt Birkbeck
A Deadly Secret, by Matt Birkbeck

Another key event is the revival of the investigation into the 1982 disappearance of Kathie Durst, Robert Durst's wife,  in Westchester County, N.Y. Westchester D.A. Jeanine Pirro put the case back on the front burner. Kathie Durst's disappearance was very suspicious, and Robert was clearly a suspect, but there was no evidence at the time of her disappearance to charge her husband with a crime. Also, he was the son of a very wealthy real estate magnate and could marshal the best defenses that money could buy.

In 2002, a provocative new book was published: A Deadly Secret by Matt Birkbeck. According to Robert Ingrassia of the New York Daily News, "Birkbeck says a friend urged Kathie Durst to tell her husband that if he didn't give her a fair divorce settlement, she would turn him in for embezzling from his family's company. The book suggests that Kathie Durst, after ingesting two grams of cocaine and two bottles of wine at a party, arrived at their Westchester County home Jan. 31, 1982, to find a violence-prone spouse who was more mentally disturbed than anyone knew." Several days later, Durst reported her missing.

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