Both the defense and prosecution adopted a risky, all-or-nothing strategy in asking jurors not to consider any lesser charge than murder in the trial of eccentric millionaire Robert Durst.
It was the real estate heir’s team that won the gamble.
Even Durst looked stunned when a jury Tuesday acquitted him in the grisly case, which began to unfold when trash bags containing pieces of 71-year-old Morris Black washed up along Galveston Bay in 2001.
“All of us believed it was either murder or it was nothing,” said Durst attorney Michael Ramsey.
Durst had admitted accidentally killing his neighbor, then cutting up the body and throwing away the pieces in the bay in a panic. The verdict was delivered after more than 26 hours of deliberations spread over five days.
The jury was allowed to consider only murder, not lesser charges such as manslaughter. For now Durst, 60, will remain in jail facing a bail-jumping count, which could bring up to 10 years in prison.
Durst, who has been estranged from his family since the early 1990s, remains under suspicion in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife in New York state and the 2000 shooting death of her friend Susan Berman, a Los Angeles writer who was set to be questioned about the missing woman. He has not been charged in either case.
The office of Westchester County, N.Y., District Attorney Jeanine Pirro noted the acquittal and added: “This does not affect the investigation into the disappearance of Kathleen Durst.”
Although Pirro has not officially labeled Durst a suspect in the 1982 disappearance, she has refused to rule him out, and the case was reopened in 2000 when new, undisclosed evidence was found. Durst has denied involvement.
The acquittal stunned a friend of Kathleen Durst, Gilberta Najamy. “It took me a while to stop shaking,” she said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Of Durst’s defense claim that he panicked after the death of Black because he was suspected in his wife’s disappearance, Najamy said: “Well, he knows we all think he killed Kathleen and he is acting like a guilty person.”
Durst’s younger brother was more blunt. “He’ll kill again,” Thomas Durst, 53, told the New York Post. “Bob is a madman.”
Durst met Black after moving from New York, initially posing as a mute woman to escape attention in the two other deaths. He later dropped the masquerade and became friends with Black, who lived across the hall from him in a low-rent apartment building.
Durst’s attorneys said the friendship soured because of the elderly man’s belligerent behavior.
During nearly four days on the stand, Durst testified that he found Black in his apartment on Sept. 28, 2001, and that Black had Durst’s gun. During a struggle, the gun went off, hitting Black in the face, he said.
Durst testified that he panicked, fearing police would not believe his story, so he used two saws and an ax to cut up the body and threw away the pieces. The victim’s head has never been found.
He said he could not recall details about dismembering the body, but when pressed by a prosecutor, he said it was “a nightmare with blood everywhere.”
Prosecutors called Durst a cold-blooded killer who shot Black to steal his identity. They said the proof was the way he meticulously covered up the crime by cutting up the body, cleaning the crime scene, fleeing Galveston and then returning to retrieve the head.
“Is it well-planned and calculated? You bet it is,” prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk said.
Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin praised the jurors for “their ability to look at this case for what the charge was.” Sistrunk said he was dismayed and disappointed by the verdict.
When he heard the verdict, Durst’s eyes filled with tears. He hugged his attorneys, saying: “Thank you so much.”
Prosecutor Joel Bennett said many jurors told him after the verdict that one of the problems in the case was that Black’s head was never recovered. Prosecutors alleged that Durst made sure the head was never found because it could have proved Black’s death was intentional.
Juror Chris Lovell said he was influenced by a lack of consistency in the prosecution’s case: “From the very beginning of this trial the defense told us a story and they stuck to their guns all the way through. I did not believe everything they said, but every time they told us a story they were consistent in what was said.”
Juror Deborah Warren said the panel made a great effort to figure out what happened. “There were people that cried, there were people that fussed and argued. … My stomach is still knotted up,” she said.
Durst is the son of the late Seymour Durst, patriarch of the Durst Organization, a billion-dollar real estate company that owns several New York skyscrapers. The company declined to comment on the verdict.