Galveston jury finds millionaire not guilty of murdering neighbor

New York millionaire Robert Durst may have chopped up the body of his elderly neighbor and tossed the pieces into Galveston Bay, but a jury today cleared him of murder.

The eight-man, four-woman jury endured two months of grisly photos and testimony worthy of a soap opera and finally decided there wasn’t enough evidence to discount Durst’s story of self-defense, that Morris Black was an unbalanced and violent old man who died as the two struggled for a gun in September 2001. Durst admitted to dismembering his friend but blamed an alcohol-induced panic.

The heir to one of Manhattan’s largest real estate fortunes could have spent the rest of his life in prison and even now remains in jail because he still faces charges for jumping bail after his arrest two years ago.

Jurors said it took them three or four votes to reach their 12-0 acquittal — Texas law demands a unanimous vote — and initially five voted not guilty, four voted guilty and three said they were undecided.

“I changed my mind a dozen times,” said juror Chris Lovell, but in the end he believed a not guilty verdict was “absolutely, positively, 100 percent” correct.

A stunned silence gripped the Galveston courtroom when the jury’s verdict was read. Deputies escorted one juror away in tears.

With tears glistening in his eyes, Durst took a deep breath and shakily thanked his attorneys, who quickly called a news conference.

Defense attorney Mike Ramsey told reporters that Durst is a better man than he was when arrested. After spending 40 years under the influence of “one drug or another,” Durst has been clean and sober while in jail for the past two years, he said.

“He’s a different guy,” Ramsey said.

One of Robert Durst’s attorneys hugs him after today’s verdict.

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said Durst isn’t guilty of murder but still struggles with the events that followed Black’s death.

“I can tell you Bob is horrified by the some of the things he did,” he said.

Prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk, who was visibly shaken as he exited the courtroom, later told reporters that it’s up to Judge Susan Criss to decide whether Durst remains a threat to the public. She is overseeing his bail-jumping trial, but no court date has been set yet, and it’s unknown whether he’ll be permitted to leave jail in the meantime.

However, Sistrunk added, “Mr. Durst is not going to be invited to my house for any reason at all.”

Although jurors sided with Durst on the murder charge, they said they discounted Durst’s dramatic four days of testimony during the trial.

“There was a lot I didn’t believe,” said Lovell. For instance, Durst said he didn’t wipe any fingerprints off the gun that killed Black.

Associated Press Juror Chris Lovell explains the jury’s reasoning today. “C’mon . . . We know Morris Black didn’t wipe no fingerprints off that gun,” Lovell said.

But Lovell credited the defense team with at least sticking to its self-defense story all the way through, compared to prosecutors who presented various possible scenarios based on circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors, for instance, hypothesized that perhaps Black’s bullet-pierced head — which was never recovered — sank to the bottom of Galveston Bay or perhaps Durst threw it into the Gulf during on a road trip to New Orleans.

Another juror said the dismemberment that followed Black’s death was irrelevant: Only the death itself mattered, whether it was murder or an accident..

“There was reasonable doubt,” said juror Joanne Gongora.

Closely watched by New York’s tabloids and the nation’s cable news networks, Durst had taken the stand to tell jurors he remembers little of the dismemberment that took place in a haze of alcohol and panic. He testified he tried to cover up Black’s death because he expected skepticism from police when they inevitably discovered he’d moved to Galveston disguised as a mute woman to escape publicity over another murder investigation.

After most of Black’s corpse washed ashore, Durst was arrested, but he posted bond and vanished before anyone realized he was a very wealthy man. A month later the penny-pinching fugitive was arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a hoagie sandwich, a Band-Aid and a newspaper — even though he had $38,000 in cash in the trunk of his car.

Defense attorneys tried to explain away Durst’s sometimes-bizarre behavior. They said he suffered from a mild form of autism and recounted a pampered but turbulent life that included his mother’s fatal plunge from a roof when he was 7, the disappearance of his first wife, chronic alcohol and drug abuse, and the execution-style shooting of a longtime friend three years ago.

Just before the death of that college friend, Susan Berman, New York prosecutors said they wanted to question her in the death of Durst’s first wife, Kathy. Fleeing a storm of publicity, Durst left a $3,800-per-month condominium in Dallas to move to a $300-per-month rundown four-plex apartment in Galveston in late 2000.

It was there he met Black, 71, who lived just across the hall.

According to testimony, Durst discarded his wig and dresses and the name Dorothy shortly after moving in. A close friendship with Black took hold as the pair began watching television news programs together, and the two were often seen around Galveston at the library, on walking tours of art galleries — and at a firing range. Durst testified that he bought the .22-caliber Ruger that would later cause Black’s death because it was easy for the elderly man to handle.

Defense attorneys said there were ominous signs that Black was a disturbed man prone to fits of rages. Workers from the island’s Rosenberg Library testified he threatened to burn down the building if they didn’t fix fire-code violations, and a social worker for the University of Texas Medical Branch testified he threatened to kill her after she reported his claims that he’d killed a G.I. who murdered his Japanese wife decades earlier.

Durst, however, testified his relationship with Black didn’t become strained until Black began letting himself into Durst’s apartment while he was out. Twice, the defendant said, Black shot holes in the apartment while horsing around. Durst said he took his key away, but on Sept.28, 2001, came home once again to find Black inside watching TV.

Durst said Black had an angry look in his eye, and Durst immediately went to the broiler drawer of his oven, a hiding place for the pistol they’d once used in target practice. It wasn’t there, he said, and he turned to find the gun pointing at him.

Durst testified he lunged for the gun, which went off as the two fell to the floor. Durst said he remembers little after that, just “blood everywhere.” He left the apartment but returned the next day after deciding to hide the body, clean out Black’s apartment across the hall and make it seem as if Black had moved.

The corpse was too heavy to wrap in a tarp to move, so Durst resorted to two saws, an ax, a box of plastic garbage bags and a bottle of Mr. Clean. After hurling the bags into Galveston Bay, Durst paid off Black’s rent so the landlord wouldn’t notice anything was wrong.

The bags floated to the top, however, and Durst was arrested while hiding out with whiskey, marijuana and sleeping pills.

(Houston Chronicle)

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