Lawyers for Robert Durst could not have been facing a steeper hill when they began picking jurors Aug. 25 for the eccentric millionaire’s murder trial. Somehow, however, they made it to the top and down the other side.
Durst, 60, carelessly left a trail of evidentiary crumbs in his wake after he dismembered the body of his 71-year-old neighbor, threw the pieces in Galveston Bay and fled this Gulf Coast community with $600,000 to finance his brief life as a fugitive.
So how did the defense prevail? How was Robert Durst, the defendant whose own lawyer says he is working with a compass that “doesn’t point north,” able to be declared not guilty?
Seven of the 12 jurors who deliberated Durst’s fate for 26 hours provided some of the answers when they spoke to reporters after the verdict. They dodged questions about whether they thought Durst actually murdered Morris Black but spoke in perfect harmony when they opined that prosecutors did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Based on the evidence, it wasn’t there. We cannot convict him based on our thoughts and beliefs,” said juror Joanne Gongora.
But that’s only part of the answer.
Durst’s acquittal can be credited to a high-powered defense team that picked a risky legal strategy, after eliminating others, and then stuck with it faithfully.
If Durst was to have any chance of being acquitted, defense lawyers believed, they had to select jurors who said they could understand how a person like Durst could be panicked enough to do something as horrible as cutting up a body.
Lead defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, one of Texas’ top criminal defense lawyers, must have stressed three dozen times during the trial that Durst was not on trial for dismembering Morris Black or jumping bail after he was charged. Reporters from Durst’s native New York smiled every time DeGuerin argued that position, but jurors took it to heart.
“This jury was able to put in proper perspective the evidence they had,” DeGuerin said. “These people all told us during jury selection that they could separate the issues and they kept them separate. I congratulate them.”
One juror, Chris Lovell, gave the defense credit for sticking to one story from the very beginning of the case and not wavering, as prosecutors did. Lovell noted that, during testimony, prosecutors tried to show that Durst shot Black from close range but later asserted in closing arguments that he shot Black from a distance.
“They gave us two different stories,” Lovell said, describing it as a situation of “we’re going to find Robert Durst guilty, you pick the reason.”
Galveston District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk spoke with jurors privately but, graciously, did not bicker with the verdict later. “We are not the jury. We remain disappointed, but we accept the verdict,” Sistrunk said. “We’ve done our job.”
Though it is generally considered risky to put a defendant on the stand, Durst had no choice but to testify if he was going to convince the jury of self-defense. And he testified without apparent emotion, often claiming he could not remember the events following Black’s death.
Interestingly, jurors said they largely discounted his testimony because of inconsistencies and past lies. Regarding Durst’s claim that he never cleaned the gun, for example, juror Lovell said dubiously, “We know Morris Black didn’t wipe those fingerprints off that gun.”
However, jurors consistently said that they believed Durst’s story that he panicked when he decided to cut up the body. And ultimately, a lack of evidence presented by the prosecution seems to be what swayed them, rather than anything Durst did or didn’t say.
Finally, Durst clearly benefited from his millions. He was able to hire some of the brightest lawyers around and pay them $1.2 million, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars on experts and expenses.
It would not be right, as one reporter suggested during the post-verdict press conference, if Durst could buy a not guilty verdict in light of the evidence against him.
“Bob Durst didn’t buy his way to freedom It wasn’t money that influenced this jury. It was the facts, or lack of the facts,” DeGuerin replied.
But one has to wonder if Durst would be going through orientation at a Texas super-max prison now if he had been a cab driver from the Bronx, instead of a multimillionaire heir to a Manhattan real estate empire.
By John Springer