Life started out so privileged for Robert Durst – the family estate in Scarsdale, the nannies as a kid, the wild nights at Studio 54 as a young adult, all the while being heir presumptive to his father’s vast real estate empire in Manhattan. Next came a long and tortured path that included estrangement from his family, the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s beautiful wife, Kathie, in New York; the Christmas Eve 2000 execution-style murder in Los Angeles of his best friend Susan Berman, a mob daughter and writer; and his traveling around the country posing as a mute female – or worse, carrying on as a druggy cross dresser. The strange world of Bobby Durst enters a new stage this week with the start of jury selection in his trial here for the 2001 murder and dismemberment of a 71-year-old neighbor. If convicted, he would face life in prison. Durst, 60, is claiming self-defense, that he accidentally killed Morris Black, a cantankerous man who lived across the hall in a two-story, four-apartment rooming house in a less-than-glamorous section of this resort city of 59,000. The sticky part for the defense will be explaining why Durst, the eldest son of the late Seymour Durst, whose company owns much of the Times Square area and many other high-rise holdings in Manhattan, chopped up Black’s body, then dumped it in Galveston Bay. On Sept. 30, 2001, a teenager fishing on a concrete jetty spotted a torso floating near the shoreline oyster beds. When police arrived, they discovered plastic garbage bags containing arms and legs. Black’s head never turned up, making it hard to determine the exact cause of death. On the lam After being arrested – Durst was linked to Black through hardware store receipts found in the bags – he posted $300,000 bail and fled. He was arrested seven weeks later in Pennsylvania after shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich. Last week, during discussions about a questionnaire for prospective jurors, prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk and defense attorney Dick DeGuerin – who remain under a gag order – gave a few hints about what might happen during the trial, which has attracted national attention and the interest of actor Bruce Willis for a possible movie. District Judge Susan Criss will allow jury candidates to be asked, “What are your feelings and opinions about psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health care workers?
” But she will not allow prospective jurors to indicate whether they would believe a defendant who claimed a mental disorder caused him to act irrationally. The defense seems inclined to summon expert witnesses to explain why an innocent man might chop up a body, dispose of it, then jump bail and flee. Sistrunk contended if the defense wanted to theorize why Durst acted a certain way, he would want to link Durst’s behavior to suspicions about his role in his wife’s disappearance (or murder, as many of her friends and family believe) or in the shooting of Berman. Criss has barred mention of Berman’s murder and of Kathie Durst, who officially remains a missing person but is the subject of a reopened investigation by Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. The prosecution also is expected to bring in expert forensic witnesses to show that Black sustained a long and brutal attack before his death. Among the experts listed in court documents is the noted forensic pathologist Dr. Henry Lee, who testified in the O.
J. Simpson trial. The defense is expected to counter with experts of its own, including Dr. Charles Petty of Dallas, a forensic pathologist who helped investigate the JFK assassination. Other strategies Also, there is a possibility that prosecution witnesses will suggest Durst was seen poking around a disposal site before the killing, which would indicate premeditation and undercut the self-defense claim. The court case file reveals other possible strategies, most notably that the defense plans to establish Black’s reputation for being a potentially violent man. One letter shows that a landlord evicted Black for being nasty and argumentative. “Please desist from telephone calls to my home,” wrote Jeffina Evans on June 23, 2000. “I neither appreciate late calls nor the abusive manner you chose to assume.
” Black was barred from using the local Rosenberg Library after repeatedly harassing the staff, court records show. On July 19, 2001, two months before his death, Black told the office manager, “The library is going to have a fire and you all will be sorry and learn a lesson.
” Records show that Black also repeatedly threatened officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where he was treated. On March 17, 1999, he became “loud and argumentative” and threatened to sue the hospital. A panel of 300 prospective jurors will begin answering the Durst questionnaire Tuesday. Criss hopes to complete that process by Wednesday. Individual questioning of each candidate could take several weeks, according to court personnel. Criss hopes to begin opening statements Sept. 18. Sistrunk has submitted more than 170 names to the court as potential witnesses, though many would testify simply to the accuracy of business, bank, telephone or medical records.